My Book Launch

July 10, 2015

Friends,

My book “Across the Sheugh” launched today in Amazon Kindle Books. It is selling at only 99p and I hope you buy a copy and enjoy it.

Thanks

Jim Woods


Expansion & Persecution of the Church

April 30, 2014

Introduction.

As we have seen, the beginnings of the Church lie with the Apostles and the new found courage and enlightenment they received on the day of Pentecost. It was a completely new experience for these twelve men and we can be reasonably sure that even they did not fully realise what the future held for this new movement they were founding. As pious Jews they could not yet foresee that their Church would minister to the Gentiles, or separate itself completely from the Temple and its practices. They were newly filled with the Spirit and ready to spread the “Good News” before the expected return of Christ came. In the years that followed the Church began to expand quickly outward from Jerusalem and the course of that expansion must have constantly been a new experience to these men, but they were aware of the Holy Spirit’s action in assisting this development.

 The Roman Empire was the main authority in this region but, even in the years following the fall of Jerusalem, Judaism remained a legitimate religion. Christianity was still considered to be a minor sect of Judaism and prospered greatly from the tolerance shown by Roman authorities. However, Paul’s ministry efforts and the decision of the Council of Jerusalem had begun to cause problems between the Christians and Jews. The decision by Christians to ignore the “Law” as it concerned the Gentiles had reduced them, in the eyes of Orthodox Jews, to a despised and heretical minority. Wherever and whenever possible the Jewish authorities would strive to suppress the Christian movement and remove its influence from the synagogue.

Wherever Christian missionaries travelled they found themselves in competition with Jews as they tried to convert Gentiles to their faith. This is not surprising when one considers that in its earliest days the Christian message was principally disseminated through the synagogues that served the needs of the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman world. It was quite common, moreover, for these synagogues to include, at least at the margins of the community, a number of Gentiles who had chosen to adopt Jewish customs and beliefs because Judaism promised inclusion in God’s chosen.

In fact, it was among these “Hellenised” Jewish communities that the early Christian missionaries were to find their greatest success as the faith spread out into the world from Jerusalem. Orthodox Judaism, however, could not free itself from the prescriptions of the “Law”, which many Gentiles felt were burdensome and their evangelising efforts faltered in the face of Christian successes. Vicious rumours and charges of heresy, however, continued to be levelled at Christians as Jewish authorities maintained their efforts to halt the progress of the new faith. This struggle between Jew and Christian became particularly vicious and incessant in the Province of Asia and, around 90 A.D., Jewish leaders finally codified the canon of the “Hebrew Bible”. At the same time they added a special blessing to the “Shema” which cursed the Christian heretic, “excluding him forever from the fellowship of the Synagogue”. [i] It was a sign of just how intense the ill-feeling between the two groups had become and the open hostility being shown made the Roman authorities take notice of this new sect. When the break between Christianity and Judaism finally came about the tolerance previously shown to Christians began to evaporate.

Fortunately the Church had the Church had used the interval to evolve its own independent organisation and a liturgy suited to its own needs. Although the Christian communities had no synagogues, or houses of worship, of their own they met in the homes of members where they could celebrate the Eucharist and share a meal together. They would meet on each Sunday, because it was the first day of the week and it was also the day on which Christ had arose from the dead. In practice the worship of the early Christian community involved singing psalms and hymns, teaching, praying and healing. On occasions there were also testaments from members of the community and charismatic celebration of speaking and praying in tongues. It was, therefore, this form of worship which Christianity brought with it as it expanded through the eastern half of the Roman Empire into the West, strongly establishing itself in many of the Empire’s major cities.

Ministry

There are some who suggest that foundation of the Christian Church, or community of God, and the beginnings of ministry within the Church originate with the person of Christ. But Jesus did not seek to establish a new community because, as a pious Jew, he knew that Israel was already a “Community of God”. They were a faithful community who had selected certain individuals to carry out particular functions on behalf of the community, such as Levites and Rabbis. Jesus’ success lies in the decisive step that he took to ensure that his followers would be recognised as the “New Israel”, pledged to the fulfilment of the “Law” and not its destruction.

Other scholars of Church history suggest that the Church’s organisation, rather than originating with Christ, evolved gradually until by 90 A.D. its ministry and parts of its liturgy corresponded in some ways to those shown by the synagogues in “Hellenistic” communities. At the same time, any idea that the new Christian community was to be a hierarchical society which would be strictly governed by Apostles with St. Peter at their head was far from reality. In fact during the early days of the Church, at Jerusalem, authority lay in the hands what was simply a Christian “Sanhedrin” that was presided over by James, ably assisted by the other Apostles who, together, were regarded as representing the twelve tribes of Israel. There may, of course, have been a form of ‘Inner Council’ that consisted perhaps of the leading Apostles, James, Peter and John. In such a situation it is likely that James, the brother of Jesus would have held almost monarchical powers as both High Priest and Head of the Church.[ii]

It must be made clear, however, that outside the Church at Jerusalem there was a much looser organising emerging with less formality surrounding it. It is evident from early Church documents, such as the “Diadache”, that in 45 A.D. the Church was made up of “Prophets” and “Teachers” alongside the Apostles and these were to remain the distinctive offices of the Church until the turn of the second century. The first epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians reminds us: “ And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.”[iii] And in his letter to the Ephesians he informs us: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,”[iv] It is from these offices that the future clerical roles of Bishop, Priest and Deacon were to be developed within the Church.

We read in the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ that in the first congregation they established the Apostles “laid hands” upon those whom they appointed “presbyters – “And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” [v] It was these men who acted as administrator judges and rulers of Christian assemblies, but in the later missionary journeys undertaken by St. Paul we find records of bishops, deacons and not presbyters. It is evident that in the Church authority now began to revolve around the office of bishop. In Greek the term “Episcopus”, or Bishop, could be interpreted in two different ways. It could mean “Overseer”, which in the synagogues set-up included the overseers of charity, or the guardians of the scrolls. At the same time the term could also mean “Priest”, or leader of the community, and so each Church had its own Bishop. It may even have been a board of presbyters – bishops among whom there would always have been a President.

To occupy the post of Bishop and, therefore, leader of the community a person needed to be a man of great virtue and a fit representative of Jesus at the most solemn moments of the Eucharist. It was he who would lead the people to the appointed place when the Lord returned. With the return of Christ considered by many to be quite soon the singling out of one member of the community to be its leader or bishop was considered to be a vitally important task. Indeed it is highly probable that the community rarely bothered to consider what fuller significance the role of the Bishop’s office might have

As the first generation of believers passed on and it became widely recognised that the “Second Coming” of Christ would be a distant event the idea of a Bishop, assisted by his presbyters and deacons, became the norm in the government of Christian Churches. In Antioch, for example, by 100 A.D. the Bishop, with his priests and deacons, was in complete control of the community. At this time, the beginning of the second century, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote a series of letters insisting that Church only existed in those places where a duly appointed bishop was to be found. A bishop was to be regarded by the faithful as a living link to Christ’s Apostles, who was specially commissioned by the Holy Spirit. Without his presence no Eucharist could be celebrated and, therefore, no Christian community could be established. He was to lead the faithful against the increasing number of “false teachers” who were claiming that Christ had not truly possessed a human body and had only appeared to be a man of flesh and blood who had undergone severe suffering. Unfortunately, bishops were only men and not infallible in all things. They were not the perfect safeguard against dissent and division within the Church, and Schism became a part of the Church’s life from a very early period.

Another principal source of authority and unity within the Church was scripture, though it would be some time before the Church would come to agreement on the final form of its Bible. We are told by Polycarp of Smyrna that in the Church during this period the four gospels, 1Peter, The Pastoral letters, Hebrews and some of the Pauline epistles were being read. In his writings Polycarp also describes for us that the Christian community was well organised with its separate divisions of presbyters, deacons, and other social strata. It was an assembly of people who were concerned only in maintaining the life and purity of their faith, providing a moral example to the Gentiles that surrounded them. They may have seemed to be more interested in keeping themselves to themselves, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

Persecution

In Greek the word “martyr” simply means “witness”. In the Christian Church, however, the word quickly came to mean a person who, like Christ, had been a witness to their faith by suffering or dying for it. The records show that the earliest Christian martyrs, Stephen and the Apostle James, died at the hands of their fellow Jews who had condemned the men as being corrupters of the faith. For their “crime” both were stoned to death in 34 A.D. and 62 A.D. respectively[vi] For his part James, surnamed “the Just”, had lived in Jerusalem for the greater part of his life and was well known in the city. He loudly proclaimed that Jesus was the true Messiah during one particular public celebration angering  the orthodox Jews to the extent that they threw him bodily from the top of the Temple. It appears that he was still alive when he reached the ground and the crowd gathered around him to stone him and beat him with clubs. It was a horrific death and one which the Roman authorities in the city did nothing to prevent.

The Romans relied upon the Temple authorities to maintain control in the city and did not interfere in Jewish religious trials or rites. At first the Roman authorities could not be expected to distinguish Christians from other Jewish sects, and Judaism was a religion that was tolerated by Rome on the grounds that its beliefs and practices were of great antiquity. Under this special status the Jews were exempted from being required to honour the Empire’s Gods, or venerating the divinity of the emperor. But, for many ordinary Romans Judaism was seen both as a political force in the Empire and a force that threatened the old, established religious traditions that had made the Empire great. Judaism’s efforts to convert Roman citizens encouraged the belief that the Jews were encouraging citizens to desert the laws of the Empire and to spurn one’s ancestors by turning away from their ethic and religion. They disliked the fact that Judaism’s process of conversion was often very subtle, lengthy and so complete. Action was called for and it was probably as a result of these calls that the Emperor Domitian’s persecution of the Christians first arose. At this time the Christians were developing into a separate community, outside of Jewish ‘Law’ and made up of both Jews and Gentiles. But, because they had separated themselves from Judaism they now gradually lost the legal immunity they had once enjoyed being under its influence. Unfortunately the pagan culture that had held sway over Rome for so long now became aware of Christianity being a religion distinct from Judaism with its own new creed, which was probably not one acceptable to Rome’s authorities. Moreover, it was a highly secretive sect with many ritual and liturgical eccentricities that suggested depravity in the eyes of the ignorant.

The first truly systematic persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire occurred in Rome itself, in 64 AD, after a large part of the city was destroyed by fire. The Emperor Nero decided to deflect suspicion from himself by blaming this small and peculiar religious cult that had already aroused so much suspicion among the populace. According to historical records a large number of Christians were seized by the authorities and put to death in many different, spectacular and sadistic ways. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that the Emperor, – “found wretches who were induced to confess themselves guilty; and, on their evidence, a great multitude of Christians were convicted, not indeed on clear proof of their having set the city on fire, but rather on account of their hatred of the human race. They were put to death amidst insults and derision. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and left to be torn to pieces by dogs; others were nailed to the cross; and some, covered over with inflammable matter, were lighted up, when the day declined, to serve as torches during the night. The Emperor lent his own gardens for the exhibition. He added the sports of the circus, and assisted in person, sometimes driving a curricle, and occasionally mixing with the rubble in his coachman’s dress. At length these proceedings excited a feeling of compassion, as it was evident that the Christians were destroyed, not for the public good, but as a sacrifice to the cruelty of a single individual.“[vii] The persecution instigated by Nero was, however, little more than an impromptu massacre. Although it was not the beginning of a new imperial policy of systematic persecution, Nero’s action did, nonetheless, establish a principle that the Christian sect could no longer claim legal protection for their practices. Henceforth, Christian refusal to make proper offerings in honour of the emperor or to the empire’s gods could be considered to be a criminal offence and a seditious dereliction of their civic duty. The act of one professing their adherence to the Christian faith very quickly became a capital offence, though prosecutions were only sporadic. In fact the local magistrates, for the most part, had to be urged into action as a result of discontent among the non-Christian population, or by some misfortune or sign of divine retribution that could plausibly be attributed to the impiety of the Christians.

The “Book of Acts” terminates quite abruptly during the period of Nero’s persecution and there are many Christians who believe that St. Paul was held prisoner in Rome and was among the earliest Christian martyrs put to death by Nero. The murder of Nero, however, did not signal a complete end to persecution for the Christians. In the Asian provinces of the Empire there were certain developments that served only to increase the chances of outright persecution of the growing Christian faith. When Domitian succeeded to the Imperial throne, in 81 AD, the systematic persecution of Christians returned. Unlike his predecessors, Vespasian and Titus, Domitian was somewhat absorbed in propagating his own cult. His great statue at Pergamum and his temple at Laodicea warned Christians that the Lord Caesar expected to be worshipped as well as obeyed. But the new emperor was a gloomy and suspicious man with a quick and terrible temper, always fearing treachery and encouraging a system of spies to ensure that it never came to fruition. As for his Christian subjects, Domitian considered them to be a sect that fostered dangerous political designs and, as a result, treated them with great harshness. The Emperor was encouraged in his anti-Christian beliefs by the false accusations of many Jews that the Christians were determined to gain control for themselves and establish Jesus as the King of this new realm. Domitian decided to remove the threat at source and sought out the nearest surviving members of Jesus’ family, two grandchildren of Jude who was also considered to be a brother of Jesus. These were simple and illiterate men who jointly owned a small farm in Palestine, which they cultivated and maintained with their own hands. Taken before Domitian, in Rome, the Emperor quickly realised that his fears were groundless and that he had allowed himself to be convinced by exaggerated reports. Nevertheless, Domitian had seen the influence that Christianity had begun to gain among the nobility of Rome, and even in his own family. Flavius Clemens, a nobleman and a cousin of the Emperor, was executed for his adherence to Christianity. Yet another near relative, Flavia Domitilla, was seized and banished with many others to the small penal island of Pontia because of their Christian beliefs.

With Christianity becoming a legally proscribed religion within the Empire, and in the face of the persecutions of Nero and Domitian, the number of people daring to profess themselves Christian decreased considerably. Nevertheless, despite all the injustice and hatred showered upon it, the Church survived and even began to show signs of a steady and vigorous growth as the first century came to a close. The Provinces of Asia Minor were found to be particularly fertile ground for the spreading of the ‘Good News’ and the growth of the Church there, once again, attracted the interest of the Imperial authorities. The Province of Pontus-Bithynia, which lay on the coast of the Black Sea, had become a place of corruption and mismanagement. The Governors and officials of the various cities within the province were utterly corrupt, squandering vast sums of public money and erecting public buildings on ground that was far from suitable. The people themselves had become restless and discontent at the corruption that surrounded them, to such a degree that it came to the attention of the Emperor in Rome, Trajan. Early in 112 AD Trajan decided to send his close friend, Pliny, as his special representative to the province to set matters right. In his subsequent writings Pliny reports that it was late in 112 AD that he first came into contact with Christians in the area when he reached the town of Amastris.  Pliny was told by the local officials that the state of disrepair and the public discontent were all the fault of a sect called Christians. When several of these Christians “troublemakers” were brought before Pliny they did not make a good impression upon him.  As was customary, they were asked three times whether they accepted the accusations against them and, when they refused to deny them, Pliny sent them off for execution. He explains, “Whatever they were guilty of, their very obstinacy deserves to be punished”.”[viii]

It appears that soon after this event certain complications began to arise for Pliny.  Many of those individuals  accused of Christian beliefs recanted them, and when someone produced a list with a large number of names on it, many of those who were named were found to be innocent of any charge. Pliny finally concluded that rather than being a major threat to the stability of the Empire Christians were simply adherents to an extravagant superstition. Trajan responded to Pliny, telling him that – “They (the Christians) are not to be sought out; but if they are accused and convicted, they must be punished – yet on this condition, that who so denies himself to be a Christian, and makes the fact plain by his action, that is, by worshipping our Gods, shall obtain pardon on his repentance, however suspicious his past conduct may be.” As neither “treason” nor atheism were specifically mentioned in Pliny’s report the Bithynian Christians were, henceforth, regarded as members of some form of illegal Judaistic association which was perverting the worship of the gods in the province. But those Christians who repented of their religious wrongdoing were to be dealt with according to the “liberality” and “humanity” of the times. 

When the Emperor Trajan came to Antioch, already a major centre of Christianity, the local Christian leader, St. Ignatius, was brought before him for questioning. Trajan suggested that Ignatius had become possessed by an evil spirit that caused him to break the Imperial laws and to refuse service to the gods of Rome. What was equally damning, Trajan suggested, was the manner in which Ignatius persuaded others to follow his lead in these things. Ignatius spoke bravely before Trajan insisting that he was a servant of Christ and not possessed by any evil spirit. In fact, Ignatius insisted, it was through Christ that he was able to defeat the malice of evil spirits and for this reason he constantly bore his God and Saviour within his heart. Trajan continued to question Ignatius until eventually he ordered that he should be taken to Rome in chains, where he would face wild beast in the Arena. The Emperor was convinced that by sending this much admired leader to such a terrible death other Christians may be terrified into forsaking their faith. But the courage and patience with which Ignatius accepted and bore his sufferings gave the Christians fresh encouragement that they too could endure whatever might be visited upon them.

Trajan, however, did not want to launch a full-blooded persecution upon the Christians. In fact he had good reason to ensure that religious tensions within the Empire not be exacerbated, especially when it came to the Jews or their sects. In 115 AD when Trajan was away on his great campaigns against Parthia, the Jews of the “Dispersion” rose in revolt. In Cyrenaica, for example, they proclaimed a new King and wreaked havoc in the Province, ensuring nothing of the hated Gentiles should remain and killing many thousands of Greeks. Alexandria and Cyprus were also scenes wherein terrible risings took place. But, while the Jewish revolt may have saved Parthia, it brought about the end for the “Dispersion Jews” as both a political and religious threat. Reprisals against the treacherous Jews were grim and calculated. In some areas, such as Cyprus,  the Jews were treated openly as enemies of the state and banned entry. Meanwhile, the Christians had stood aside during all these troubles and they now began to benefit from taking such a stance.

It was Hadrian who succeeded Trajan as Emperor and he instructed officials that a Christian must be accused of definite crimes under due process of law before he could be condemned. He also insisted that if the charge failed the accused person had the right of cross-charging his accuser under the “Calumnia Procedure“. Historians assure us that the Roman legal system lacked state prosecutors, and crimes were prosecuted by any individual with sufficient legal training who chose to make the case. However, prosecutions could often be politically motivated, and, in an effort to reduce the incidence of such cases, a prosecutor who brought an accusation wrongfully could be sued under the “Lex Remmia de calumnia” if the accused was absolved of the crime. The ‘calumnia’ was in essence a charge of libel or defamation and the person found guilty of ‘calumnia’ was subject to the same punishment as the person he falsely accused would have received. [ix]

The Jews, however, were not to fare so well under the Emperor Hadrian, who ordered the restoration of Jerusalem but as a wholly pagan city to be known as “Aelia Capitolina”. Discontent simmered among the Jews in Palestine for the next two years, which flared into guerilla actions against Roman garrisons and traders. By 135 AD almost 1000 villages had been devastated and Hadrian had himself proclaimed “Imperator” for the second time. Repercussions were harsh and the Jewish leaders suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Roman authorities, which resulted in the virtual destruction of “Apocalyptic Judaism”. But, not all persecutions whether against Jews or Christians, were local in nature. The Third Century AD, for example, witnessed a number of imperial campaigns aimed at exterminating the Christians. While some of these campaigns undoubtedly caused the Church considerable damage they, nevertheless, ultimately left it stronger than it had been before. Though the actual number of Christian martyrs was not enormous, their example left a very deep impression upon the collective consciousness of the Church. There were many Christians who were terrified into recanting their beliefs, but there were so many more whose beliefs were actually strengthened by the terrors they witnessed. The willingness of Christians to die for their faith won them a reputation not only for their stubbornness, but also for their courage and purity of spirit. Tertullian of Carthage described the phenomenon in this way – “The more they mow us down, the more we grow. The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”[x]

Meanwhile, as well as conflict with the Roman State there was still major controversy with Judaism. The Christian authors answered many of the charges made against them by the Jews by claiming that the Jewish nation had lost their right to be called the ‘Chosen People’. Because the Jews had rejected and killed Jesus, the Messiah, determined that Christians would, henceforth, enjoy the favour of God, once given to the Jews. With the stress being placed upon the crucial significance of Jesus, the Apostolic Fathers  of the Church began to constantly emphasise his death and resurrection as the central act of redemption. The Christians had chosen not to support the Jewish risings against Rome but, nevertheless, their own apocalyptic hopes about the return of Christ began to wane. Within the Church there was now growing speculation about the nature of Jesus’ promise, his ministry and his revelation of the world beyond. Moreover, with the emergence of Gnosticism, about this time the history of doctrinal controversy within the Church began in earnest.

Conclusion

 During the second century after the birth of Christ, his followers struggled for survival on several fronts. There was, of course, the always present threat of physical persecution by the Roman government accompanied by a growing literary attack that developed from ill-informed slander to highly informed, critical arguments that attempted to destroy the very credibility of Christianity. While the Roman authorities were prepared to allow the lower classes to embrace Christianity without too much discouragement, they were adamant that no such leniency should be shown to the aristocracy and ruling classes. Most insidious of all, however, was the growing threat from heretical tendencies within the Church itself. And yet, against such a background of uncertainty, the Church had not only to survive but to grow and develop. This it now set out to do through self-understanding and organisation, clarifying its teachings and consolidating her structures as we can read in the writings of the “Apostolic Fathers” that included Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. From this time the Christians now began to adding new prayers to those they had inherited from the Jews, which were characterised by their emphasis on hope and thanksgiving. They were now conscious of the importance of baptism and the Eucharist, although their writings reflect the slow development of the sacramental life of the Church. They also reflect that theological development did not, on the whole, keep pace with developments in the Church’s organisation.[xi]

 

[i]  W.C. Frend, The Early Church, Fortress Press, Minneapolis,1991

[ii]    Ibid.

[iii]   1 Cor. 12:28, NRSVCE http://www.biblegateway.com,

[iv]   Eph 4:1,  NRSVCE, http://www.biblegateway.com

[v]   Acts 14:23, NRSVCE, http://www.biblegateway.com

[vi]   David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 years of the Christian Faith, Querus, London. 2007

[vii]   Quoted by W.D. Killen,The Ancient Church Its History, Doctrine, Worship, and Constitution, www.gutenberg.net, 2005

[viii]   W.C. Frend, The Early Church, Fortress Press, Minneapolis,1991. p.36

[ix]   George Mousourakis, The Historical and Institutional Context of Roman Law, Ashgate. 2003), p. 317

[x]   David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 years of the Christian Faith, Querus, London. 2007

[xi]   J.D. Holmes & B.W. Bickers, A Short History of the Catholic Church; New Millenium Edition, Burns & Oates, London. 2002

 


Church of the Apostles

April 10, 2014

Intro

 hroughout the books of the ‘New Testament’ there is frequent mention made of ‘The Twelve’, but the personal information we have about these men is very scanty. From the meagre information that we do have it appears that these twelve men were not very well qualified, either by their education or their habits, for acting as instructors in the gospel of Christ. Prior to their calling by Jesus these men had tilled the land, fished and mended, or acted as tax collectors. To any person, except Jesus, they would not have been the type one would expect to make any great impression as reformers. Their position within society provided them with no influence, while their natural talents did not exactly set them apart,  and even their Galilean dialect gave them away as being from an area of Israel  considered backward and from which nothing good or great could be expected.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus sent out his twelve apostles “two by two”, though we do not know who accompanied who. It seems that they were considered ready for the task ahead because they had been in company with Jesus from the very first days of ministry. They had heard him speak to the crowds and had seen the miracles of healing that he had worked. Moreover, Jesus empowered them to work miracles in God’s name and presented them all with the gift of inspiration. They now took up the primary mission of Christ to minister to ‘the lost sheep of Israel.’ After all, Jesus did not want to be seen as a revolutionary in Jewish society and his regard for the Jews was demonstrated by the fact that he sent all twelve apostles to that nation. Nevertheless, Jesus did not ignore or refuse to minister to either the Samaritans or the Gentiles.

Fear gripped the apostles and the disciples after the death of Jesus. Not unnaturally they expected that the death of Jesus would have been followed up by a reign of terror against his followers and they were reluctant to encourage the authorities to attack them by spreading the “Good News” in Jerusalem. But Jesus had promised his disciples that, after he had departed from the world, he would send the Holy Spirit to lead them ‘into all truth.’ According to the ‘Book of Acts’ this final gift of the Holy Spirit came to the Apostles after Christ had ascended to his Father, on the fiftieth day after the Passover called the harvest festival of ‘Sukkor’, or Pentecost. This, for many people, is the day on which the Christian Church was ‘born’, for the number of the Apostles was again twelve after Matthias, another of Jesus’ disciples, had been elevated to the position once held by Judas. And, on the day of Pentecost all were gathered together when the building in which they were hiding was suddenly filled with a great rushing of wind that appeared to come from heaven. At the same time tongues of fire appeared above their heads, and immediately they were filled with new courage and the ability to speak in foreign languages. They gathered themselves and went out into the street to preach the Gospel of the risen Christ. There they met large crowds of devout Jews, who had come to Jerusalem from many places for the feast of Pentecost, which was one of the three holy seasons at which God required His people to appear before Him in the place which He had chosen[i]. Many of the foreign Jews among the crowds were totally amazed to hear these men from Galilee speaking the tongues of their native lands, and a great number of these devout men were convinced to be baptised into Christ. When these pilgrims returned to their own countries, they carried back with them the news of the wonderful things that had taken place at Jerusalem, spreading the news of Christ further into the world. .

 Jerusalem

 We are dependent upon the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ for any knowledge we may have about the activity of Jesus’ disciples after His death. However, we often find that this record is strengthened, and even corrected, by the gospels and Paul’s epistles. In ‘Acts’ it is made plain to us that in Jerusalem they quickly formed themselves into a separate synagogue. It was, in fact, a right that any ten Jews could form their own synagogue and general community of interests, the basis for which would be agreement to opinions that differ from those of others. For us, as Christians, such a situation is difficult to comprehend. We have come to believe he necessary that an identity of opinion is the necessary foundation for Church. However, Judaism was open to a very wide range of thought, resting not on uniformity but upon obedience to the ‘Law’.

Baptism, then, as now was the entry point into the Christian life but it was the Apostles themselves, acting like a kind of living Gospel to their converts, who demonstrated the need for a steadfast continuance in the one Faith. All the faith instruction carried out by the Apostles, however, was oral for there were no books of the ‘New Testament’ written as yet. The new converts looked to these men as the fount of all knowledge about Christ because it was they who had listened to the ‘Messiah’ and had been taught by Him. The oral tradition of passing on knowledge was a long established tradition and much about Church discipline, ritual and organisation would be preserved for generations in this manner. In fact, St. Paul often mentions these oral traditions in his epistles and assures his new converts that these are as equally binding as his written word.

The great strength of the newly found Christian movement was that their unity in doctrine was supported by their active unity in fellowship. This simply meant that their new doctrine of Faith and Love was openly expressed by their actions towards God and towards their fellow men. To God they made their daily sacrifice by offering the Holy Eucharist in their homes, which became the first Christian churches. However, they also maintained their habit of constant attendance on the daily prayers and offerings made in the Temple. Even the Apostles continued their Jewish traditions, maintaining and participating in rites in so far as they did not go against the teachings of Christ, who had himself paid obedience to the “Law”. But it was in their actions towards their fellow men that Christians were to demonstrate their differences to other groups of Jews. The Christians shared all things. Those who had held property sold it and placed the proceeds were put into a common fund which was distributed to individual members of the Church as the need arose. In effect the early Church had begun by developing its own economy in that the capital of its members was realised and used to the benefit of the Church as a whole. None were left in need. Food and other necessities were shared with a great willingness, impressing all those who witnessed their activities. The Christians of the early Church, however, thought that society would soon come to and end with the return of Christ. But, they were proved wrong and in later years we read of the generous help that was sent by the Gentile churches to their poor brethren in Jerusalem.

The Church, at first, was located entirely in Jerusalem, under the leadership principally of Peter. Some Jewish leaders, notably the Sadducees, regard this new group as an alien sect of non-conformist Jews and wanted to suppress them. The Jewish leaders, however, found they were unable to act against these Jesus followers because public opinion favoured them, and they were admired for their fervent piety and adherence to Jewish custom. Some actions were taken against the leadership of the new sect with Peter and John being imprisoned under the instructions of the Sanhedrin. They wanted to force them to pledge that they would neither speak about Jesus nor teach in his name, but the prisoners refused to concede to the demands of the Sanhedrin. Instead, they maintained that they obeyed the will of God and that His commands override all human rules. They made it clear that, no matter what penalty they may impose a Christian is not bound to obey if any request is in violation of their beliefs or their commitment to God. This was enforced, some time later, with the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Up to this time Christianity had prospered within Jerusalem and had successfully spread to several regions of Israel. Then, quite rapidly, the Jews began to turn against the sect and were supported in their efforts at suppression by the Roman authorities, who wanted to appease the Jewish people.

Perhaps it had been the influx of ‘Hellenistic Jews’ into the Christian ranks that had caused deep aversion among the leadership of the Jews and their people. We have been told by other scholars that there was a tendency among the ‘Hellenistic Jews’ toward liberalism in their attitude towards Judaic traditions. Being a people of long-held traditions such conduct by these ‘Hellenists’ caused consternation within Orthodox Judaism because it was seen as a threat to the destruction of the ‘Law’[ii]. They had been willing to tolerate the Apostles and disciples of Christ, so long as they confined themselves to holding their opinions about the ‘Messiah’, and continued to fulfil all that was required of them by the ‘Law’. But, when the Christians began to preach and convert Hellenists, relations between the Church in Jerusalem and the Jews were quickly destroyed and a severe persecution took place that brought about the death of Stephen and the removal of the ‘Hellenists’.

 The Church Spreads

 As we have seen the early Christian community was, at first, exclusively Jewish and distinguished by its attitude towards wealth and property. Christians held all possessions in common, and the wealthy converts were obliged to sell their property to assist the poorer members of the community. Sources fail to show that the early Christians had any deep-felt desire to break away from Judaism and to approach the Gentiles. But, when their fellow-Jews refused to hear and accept the ‘Good News’ of the Resurrection they began to turn to others with their message of salvation. It was this effort to expand their sect that caused the Christians to become despised by the Jews, and they were largely driven out of Jewish synagogues. However, the apostolic Church moved only gradually to turn to the Gentiles in large numbers and, then, only after they had concluded that Gentiles could receive the Gospel without first becoming Jews, and being bound by the ‘Law of Moses’. Peter, in fact, gave approval to the Apostle Philip’s mission to the Samaritans, who were shunned by traditional Jews, and even preached in various Samaritan villages along with John. Elsewhere the spread of the Gospel was slower as the disciples carried their message to established Jewish communities scattered along the Mediterranean coast, outside of Israel

It was believed that their evangelising efforts would find more fertile ground among their fellow Jews, and their efforts were encouraged by Jesus himself, who had done likewise and declared that he had come to preach only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It seems that the first group to break this cycle were Jewish dissidents with strong Gentile connections and more liberal views on the Jewish Temple worship. The first steps in this new mission of preaching to the Gentiles and baptising them in Christ, appears to have begun in the city of Antioch. ‘Hellenist Jews’ made up the majority of the Church in that city and their liberal attitude towards Gentile converts prevailed. At first there was no pressure to require these new converts to be circumcised, or even to observe the prescriptions of the Jewish ‘Law’. However, as mor and more of these Gentile converts began to enter into the Church deep concerns arose among the more traditionally minded Christians who began to demand new converts be circumcised and bound to the ‘Law’. Very soon the Church found itself plunged into its very first major controversy which threatened to split the Christian community into two sects. The question at the heart of the problem was whether the Church of Christ would continue to be exclusively Jewish, or would it encompass all of humanity. The first cracks in the exclusively Jewish party occurred when Peter, the leader of the Apostolic Church, finally accepted the idea of Gentile Christians. This came about when a ‘pious and god-fearing’ Roman Centurion called Cornelius, prompted by an Angel, invited Peter to come and preach to him and his household.

The detail with which the story of Cornelius, the devout centurion, is treated within the New Testament is proof of the importance this incident played at this important stage in the history of the early Church. Cornelius had known nothing of Peter, but had been prompted to send the Apostle an invitation to visit him. When the two men met at Caesarea, Peter was welcomed warmly by the Centurion, who had gathered all his friends and relatives to listen to the Apostle. Cornelius was what has been called a proselyte of the gate, that is, he professed the Jewish theology though he had not received circumcision, and had not been admitted into the congregation of Israel. Peter, however, did not hesitate to preach to this gathering and as he spoke the Holy Spirit entered into those who had gathered. Those Jews who had come with Peter were completely amazed when they heard these Gentiles speaking in various languages and praising God. Peter declared – “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”[iii] Cornelius and his entire household were immediately baptised into the Christian community and Peter remained with them for several days. The importance of this story lies in the fact that Cornelius was a representative of the military power which at this time ruled the known world and, in his baptism, we see the Roman Empire presenting the Church of Christ with the first truly Gentile converts.

Among other converts were those whom the traditionalist Jews called “Grecians”.[iv] These were Jews who were born in countries other than Israel and had obtained a more liberal education than their more orthodox co-religionists. They had also adopted Greek customs and spoke Greek as their main language. In fact, even some of their most educated men had no comprehension of Hebrew and read the “Hebrew Bible” in its ‘Septuagint’ version. They were much despised by the stricter and more narrow-minded ‘Hebraic’ Jews, and this dissension between the two groups was continued into the heart of the early Church. It was a situation that the Church leaders needed to face head-on and resolve. Nonetheless, Christianity became the main Jewish contribution to the Oriental cults that were spreading throughout the Empire. Though Christianity still recognised the Jewish God to be supreme, Christians chiefly recognised Jesus as the divine Lord who had instituted the saving mysteries for those who accepted him as the ‘Messiah’. Christianity offered, as the synagogue never did, personal salvation to all who would accept its doctrine and its ‘sacraments’. Through its Gentile Greek connections this ‘sacramentalised’ Christianity quickly started to come to terms with Greek philosophy in a way that other mystery religions in the Empire had failed to do.

 Paul

 Around this time there arrived among the Apostles a man who, though he had never known Jesus during his earthly mission, was convinced that he was an Apostle, directly commissioned by Christ to preach the Gospel. He was a Jew, born at Tarsus in Asia Minor, and his name was Saul. He would prove himself to be a zealous and observant Pharisee who, though from a ‘Hellenized’ background and fluent in Greek, studied under the renowned master of Hebrew scripture, Rabbi Gamaliel of Jerusalem. Even from this brief description it is not difficult for one to perceive Saul’s particular fitness for the work to which God now called him. His zeal and self-devotion, deep affections, and warm sympathies, were combined with his clearness of judgement and great intellectual gifts. Added to these, of course, was the fact that due to his birthplace and education Saul had much in common with both Hebrew and Hellenist Jews.

Saul, as he was first known, was for a time probably the fiercest enemy of the followers of Christ and totally committed to the eradication of this dangerous new movement. He was also an approving witness of the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was a Greek-speaking Jew, stoned to death for alleged blasphemies against the Temple. However, persecution by Saul and the death of Stephen did have at least one positive result. The Greek-speaking Jews were driven out of Jerusalem, as planned, but established their Church and preached the Gospel in the important city of Antioch. This city was the third ranked city of the Empire and became the centre of the Christian to the Gentile nations. It was here that the first Church, with Greek as its original language, was founded and here also that the disciples of Christ were first given the title of “Christians.”

We are told in the ‘Book of ‘Acts’, that it was while Saul journeyed towards the city of Damascus in Syria, with the purpose of eliminating the Christian community there, that he encountered the risen Lord, in a blaze of light so brilliant that he was left blind for several days.  Saul’s sight was finally restored by a Christian called Ananias from Damascus and he soon began to preach the resurrection of Jesus in the synagogues of the city. In fact, so persistently and blatantly did Saul preach that he was forced to flee the city for his life. Saul, who was later to call himself Paul, has written that his knowledge of the gospel came directly from Christ, who also appointed him an Apostle. He respected the other Apostles, associated himself with them, but maintained a distinctly independent position from them. When he was baptised it was conducted by some one other than one of the twelve and neither did they ordain him for the work to which he believed Christ had called him.

It appears that some time after his conversion, either immediately after leaving Damascus or after three years had elapsed, Paul went to Jerusalem and met with Peter, James the brother of Jesus and the rest of the Church. Here he was recognised by the others as an Apostle with special responsibility from Christ for the mission to the uncircumcised. A fellow Christian, whom it is said knew Paul in his school days and had gathered reports on the work Paul had carried out since his conversion recommended him to the Church leaders in Jerusalem. This was Barnabas and he urged the Jerusalem Church to accept this former enemy in fellowship, praising the wonderful change that had taken place within the former Pharisee’s beliefs and sentiments. Paul visited the Jerusalem Church and while there he went to the Temple to pray and while he prayed he had a vision of Jesus, who told him – “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”[v]

Paul went to Antioch where disciples of Christ were first given the name, “Christians.” As stated previously the establishment of a Church in this city heralded the beginning of a new era in the development of the faith, for this great commercial city contained a large Jewish, as well as Gentile, population. Here many proselytes from pagan religions could be found in the synagogues of the Greek speaking Jews, and the Christian Gospel quickly made progress among them. It is not surprising then that Paul, from his first appearance in Antioch, appears to have gained an influential position in the Church there. His learning, ability to speak to all people, wisdom and fervent piety made Paul’s ministry very effective. However, despite his former determination to defend Judaism against Christianity, Paul had become uncompromising in his insistence that the Gospel is inclusive. Not only did he believe that the Church embraced both Jews and Gentiles; he was also convinced that Christ had entirely abolished the difference between them.[vi] For Paul, Christianity was a faith that rendered the distinction between those who had been circumcised and those who had not quite irrelevant. In his view the adoption of the Jewish Law by Gentile converts should be regarded as a kind of faithlessness to the gospel of Christ, and he vehemently opposed any such action. This interpretation of the Gospel as a liberation from the prescriptions of the ‘Law’ was not some theory that he had personally developed, but was a result of the conversion experience that had changed Paul from a dedicated follower of the ‘Law’ to a devoted disciple of Jesus.

The Church in Antioch sent Paul on his first missionary journey to Cyprus in the company of his friend Barnabas, a native of that country. On arrival they began to preach the Gospel in the Jewish synagogues and even succeeded in converting the Roman Proconsul of the land, one Sergius Paulus. Their missionary journey was, however, dogged by Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who maintained that all new converts must be circumcised according to the ‘Law.’ Under constant harassment from these dissidents Paul and Barnabas were driven to Derbe, the farthest limit of their journey. They were no obliged to retrace their steps and visit again each place where they had preached the Gospel, strengthening their teachings, confirming the new converts, ordaining good men from each community to act as Elders or Priests, to bring each community into full communion with Christ. But, the difficulties with regard to the observance or non-observance of the rite of circumcision, and other terms within the Mosaic Law, by Gentile converts continued to arise. So, when Paul heard the traditionalists saying the Gentiles must be circumcised, he insisted “… yet we know that a person is justified[a] not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”[vii] and ” I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing,”[viii] and “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”[ix] It was, of course a very difficult message for the pious Jews within the Christian family to accept and it caused some misunderstandings among the non-Jewish converts. Within Paul’s letters there is evidence that there were some new converts who imagined that their faith not only liberated them from ‘works of the Law’, but relieved them of moral obligations. It appears that ‘The Epistle of James’ was written in response to such beliefs, reminding all Christians that good works were required of them. They were told that the Church was always obliged to provide for the poor, the widow and the orphan, to condemn injustices, and to provide an irreproachable moral example to the world.

When news of this liberal attitude towards the law reached the more strictly Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, a number of them immediately set out for Antioch, determined to bring all converts, Jew or Gentile, under the yoke of the ‘Law’. This mission had not been authorised by the leadership of the Church in Jerusalem but, nevertheless, it fervently urged that all converts needed to undergo circumcision if they were to be saved. Naturally, their opposition to the message of Paul and Barnabas caused considerable dissension within the Antiochean Church and elsewhere and it was decided, therefore, that the advice of the Apostles and other leaders of the Church in Jerusalem should be sought. A new era was, however, now approaching the Church. The founders of the Church were gradually being thinned in number and it became even more important that the membership should receive such a complete and permanent organization as would enable them to pass on to succeeding ages the saving grace of which the Apostles had been the first channels. It was vital that what had been founded through the energy and work of the founders should be continued and extended through the ministry of others. But the conflict between the pro-circumcision and the anti-circumcision faction became increasingly bitter, to the extent that the unity of the Church was threatened. A resolution to the conflict could not be postponed for an indefinite period and so finally, a Council of the Church was held in Jerusalem.

 Council of Jerusalem

From the earliest days of the Church’s formation there had always been some sort of dissension between its members, which is not really all that surprising in any community of people. However, the most divisive threat to the infant Christian faith arose through differing views on Christ’s declared wish that the ‘Good News’ be delivered to all men. But, as we have seen, it was to the Jews that the ‘Good News’ first came and from among their number that the new Church gained its first followers. Chief among the many religious rituals of Judaism, however, was circumcision. By this ritual the Jews were set aside from other men as the ‘Chosen People of God’ through God’s Covenant with Abraham – “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”[x] Within Judaic law it was stated – “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”[xi]

Although the Jews believed that they alone were entrusted with the secrets of salvation they were open to others joining their ranks. These ‘non-Jews’ who had become attracted to strict, monotheistic Judaism were accepted in the role of “Proselyte”, which meant that they were bound to all the doctrines and customs of Jewish life. Converts were circumcised and, if they wanted to share the Passover meal, they were purified with water, thus making them full members of the Jewish people. As we have seen, the Jews believed that they were the ‘chosen people of God’ and were, therefore, the guardians of His laws and means to salvation. Because of this special relationship with God they were determined to keep their distance from other peoples and God had shown them how to remain pure by regulating their lives with rules that defined them as a nation set apart. Every detail of their life was prescribed in a huge list called “The Law”, and these prescriptions covered forms of worship, social customs, food, dress and many other things. In fact the Jews had very little left to have a free choice in their day to day lives and not all were comfortable with the severe discipline imposed by the “Law”. But, although many felt the ‘Law’ to be  burdensome, there were many more Jews who looked upon the severe discipline as being a ‘badge of honour’. The Messiah, they  were sure, would be a Jewish hero in the mould of David and he would shepherd all nations into the Jewish fold where all would observe the ‘Law’

It was this adherence to Judaic law that caused them to assume that all Christians would follow the Jewish “way of life”, and that all candidates for inclusion in the new faith would be taken from the same racial and cultural background. In fact, many of the Jews would consider themselves defiled and impure if they were to eat with uncircumcised Gentiles. But, such a situation could be avoided for the “Christianized Jews” if it was made a rule that any Gentile who decided to convert to Christianity would become a “proselyte”, abiding by the prescriptions of the Jewish Law. It was their belief that if people from this corrupt environment were to be welcomed into the Christian brotherhood, they should have the most stringent conditions imposed upon them. If this did not happen they were convinced that the time would speedily come about when there would be more Gentile Christians than Jewish Christians, which would eventually result in a steep decline in the ethical standards of Christianity. Through the imposition of Circumcision this could be avoided because all members of the new faith would be from the same racial and cultural background.

The Apostle Peter, while on his evangelizing journey, encountered the problem of a Gentile seeking baptism and entry into the Christian community. However, the question for Peter was settled by the direct intervention of God. Cornelius was both an un-circumcised Gentile and a Roman Centurion in the Roman army of occupation, based in Caesarea, but he is said to have possessed suitable qualities to be accepted as a proselyte, and he already observed a number of Jewish rites and traditions. He was what the Jewish Christians referred to as a “God-fearer”, which was an unofficial class of Gentile who was friendly to Judaism, but stopped short of becoming full proselyte. There were some, even among the stricter Jews, who had no problems with permitting the “God-fearers” to participate in Jewish worship, albeit in a limited way. Peter and those accompanying him, however, accepted the right of Gentile believers to be included among the fellowship of believers in Jesus. They demonstrated this by baptizing un-circumcised Gentile believers in the name of Jesus Christ and remaining for some days to associate with them. But, when Peter returned to the Church in Jerusalem he immediately found himself faced with questions from every side wanting him to explain his actions in Caesarea, especially the baptism of uncircumcised Gentiles. Most of the issues brought against Peter were from those of the strict Hebraic Jewish faction within the Church and involved various aspects of the “kosher” laws, such as association with un-circumcised Gentiles. If such purity laws were being questioned by Peter, they suggested, it implied there was no longer a necessity for the rite of circumcision within the Christian fellowship and, therefore, no restriction about those with whom they could break bread. Peter answered all their arguments by simply insisting that it was God’s initiative which had brought him into contact with Cornelius, and God had demonstrated to him His approval of the baptism.

Opposition did not disappear overnight although the incident with Cornelius was now over, and Peter’s action should have set a precedent of what was to follow. The opposition of the orthodox Jewish converts, however, were not to be set aside so easily. They gave the appearance of being reconciled to Peter’s action, but were determined that this should not become a regular thing. Paul’s work among the Gentiles caused this group much concern, although there is no evidence that Paul was trying to emulate Peter’s example. Paul firmly believed that his mission to the Gentiles had been given to him directly by God. He was also convinced that God did not want the burden of Judaic Law placed upon the new converts because it would destroy the joy they had now discovered in Christ’s teachings. Moreover, from experience, Paul realised that Romans and Greeks would not consent to be circumcised and bound to Jewish traditions that bring severe restrictions to the life they were used to. For his part, Paul just wanted all his converts to follow the directions of Christ and ensure the spread of Christianity. He wanted nothing that would prevent faith in Christ becoming universal and opposed any steps to impose orthodoxy. Meanwhile, there were those in Jerusalem who held that Paul did not hold a commission from the Church and, therefore, could not effectively carry out his mission.

Paul admitted that the Jews were not an insignificance in God’s plans, but he maintained that God’s salvation was a gift to all mankind and given to them freely, without limitation. Christ had secured this gift for us through his person, ministry, death and resurrection and, therefore, no candidates for Christian salvation should be limited to any particular ethnic, national, nor cultural group. The only requirement for candidates, Paul insisted, is that they should accept God’s gracious gift by their faith. While such good news was welcomed by the Gentile converts, Paul’s opinions met with opposition from the ‘Jewish Christians’. In fact the debate became so heated that many in the Church became concerned for its continued unity and so it was decided that the arguments could only be silenced by a decision from the Church at Jerusalem. There was, however, somewhat of an administrative change in the Jerusalem Church at this time. While the leadership of the Apostles was not set aside, it was exercised over an expanding area of Christianity, and the day-to-day affairs of the Jerusalem Church were handled by a body of elders. Although there is no record of the number of elders there were, but if it was based upon the model of the Sanhedrin then there may have been seventy elders. Nevertheless, the Church was still guided by the leadership of Jesus’ brother, James, and remained the base for several of Jesus’ disciples. It was to this Church that Barnabas and Paul were sent in 49 A.D. to gin a definitive decision on the necessity of circumcision for Gentile converts.

When Paul and Barnabas came to Jerusalem they were made very welcome and gave a report on their work among the Gentiles. Paul now put forward his case to the Council members and they listened attentively to what he had to say. Those who opposed him, mostly from among the Pharisee sect, stood up and demanded that all new Gentile converts must be circumcised and sworn to abide by the Law of Moses. This now sparked a bitter debate among all factions within the Council until, finally, James and Peter took control of the meeting and decided that they would speak on the matter. It was their moderating influence that swayed many opposed to Paul and the decision of the Council went in favour of the Apostle to the Gentiles; henceforth, Gentiles would no longer be required to undergo circumcision before being baptised. It was decided, however, that Gentile converts would have to abide by some of the Judaic laws, namely those requiring them to abstain from meat offered in sacrifice to idols, from fornication, and from blood. Paul, for his part, did not see any harm in people eating meat that had been used in idolatrous sacrifices, especially when that same meat was being offered for sale in the city’s market. However, on his travels he had seen the manner of feasts in the pagan temples after a sacrifice and these often led to drunkenness and fornication. Paul wanted any converts from paganism to be kept away from such temptations and, therefore, felt no need to offer any objection to the Council’s decision. The divisive question was now solved through the unquestionable authority of James, Peter and John, the Apostles of Christ and pillars of the Church in Jerusalem. Both Paul and Barnabas now saw no more need for continuing debate on the question, for through this important decision the Council in Jerusalem had opened up the pagan world to the gospel of Christ. Unfortunately, there were immovable legalistic minded members of the Jerusalem Church who tried to undo the spirit of the apostolic decree by going to the Gentile mission-field themselves and imposing their viewpoint on the Gentile converts. To these people the decision of the council had raised questions about authority within the Church and brought about an increasing awareness, among Church members, of the differences that existed between Judaism and Christianity.

Although Peter and Barnabas had excitedly returned to Antioch with a letter spelling out the Council’s decision, those who had opposed their decision continued to foment agitation within the Church, especially among the Jewish-Christian grouping. They had a deep felt pride in their Jewish nationhood and complete belief that circumcised converts to Christianity would have a much more peaceful and fruitful relationship with their Jewish-Christian brothers. It was an idea that quickly grew into fanaticism as the pro-circumcision propaganda gathered momentum and began to spread throughout the Church as a whole. Eventually it was resolved by these opponents of Paul that they should send out their own people to visit the Gentile Churches and, despite the Council’s decision, to warn them that they could not hope for salvation if they remained uncircumcised. They added, of course, that new Christians could not hope to enjoy any of the privileges of true Christianity if they did not keep the laws of Judaism. For many years after the Council these pro-Hebraic ambassadors travelled in the footsteps of Paul. But, unlike Paul they were not missionaries who had an interest in founding Christian churches of their own, but were despoilers who were convinced that they alone had the true message of Christianity. Like a malevolent shadow these men followed Paul, causing agitation among his converts by their own narrow view of the meaning of Christ’s message of salvation. They would move into new Christian communities and claimed that Paul’s version of the Gospel was not true to the message of Christ, and that Paul had no authority from Jerusalem to establish churches. At the same time they also questioned Paul’s credentials as an Apostle of the Lord because he had said his commission came from heaven rather than from the person of Christ like the “true” Apostles at Jerusalem. Their version of Christianity, they insisted, was the only true version and that they had been sent to stop Paul’s heresy by the apostles and the Church at Jerusalem. Through such lies and more these fanatics attempted to taint every aspect of Paul’s character in the eyes of his new converts. But, the despoilers were not successful in their efforts in every community they entered though they did manage to stir up considerable dissension. Their attempts to poison the minds of new Christians towards Paul were, however, particularly successful in several churches he had founded in Galatia and Corinth. Paul, undaunted by these underhand methods responded to their threat with every means at his disposal/ On occasion he returned to the churches that had succumbed to the Hebraic propaganda and, on other occasions he sent the Churches personal letters of encouragement entrusted to the hands of friends. Within the New Testament are recorded these events and letters as to how Paul fought against disruption with passion, tenderness, wit, and most especially love. Armed as he was with the Holy Spirit, Paul proved himself to be more than a match for his enemies, combating their hatred and narrow-mindedness with the charity and understanding demonstrated by Christ. This was undoubtedly a dangerous time for both Paul and the future of Christianity as a universal Church. Fortunately for modern Christianity Paul, with help of the Holy Spirit, overcame the threat that could have relegated it to a small, forgotten sect within Judaism.

 Death of Peter and Paul

 This was now a great turning point in the history of the Church as it officially began to shed its exclusively Jewish character to become the Church of all humanity. Paul was reinvigorated and he began the missionary journeys that would take him across Asia Minor and into Greece, where he left behind congregations in Iconium, Lystra, Colossae, Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, and many other places, leaving behind him new churches where the distinction between Jew and Gentile would be no importance. And, as he moved from place to place he wrote letters leaving us his deep theological insights, which would lay the groundwork for the future developments of Christian theology. But, they were also very personal correspondence that,  at the same time, reveal his loving concern for every little detail in the life of the congregations he founded.

 It was because the Jerusalem decision allowed freedom to the Gentiles, and  Paul’s unceasing labours, alongside other missionaries, that caused the Church to spread with remarkable rapidity. But, the time came when he was obliged to visit Jerusalem once again, this time to deliver the collection for the poor that he had taken up among his churches.  When Paul arrived in Jerusalem he was greeted warmly by the leaders of the Church and was persuaded, by James and the elders, to show his reverence for the Law by undertaking a ceremonial purification in the Temple. While he was at the Temple, however, he was recognised by some Jews and they raised a demonstration against him, declaring him to be a notorious traitor. The disturbance that followed almost cost Paul his life, but he was saved from harm by the intervention of a Roman Tribune. Unfortunately, Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea to await trial until, after two years detention, he appealed to Emperor Nero and was sent to Rome, where he was detained for two years under house arrest while he awaited trial.

 There were, of course, many other Christian missionaries at the time who endured similar experiences to Paul’s, but we know very little about them. The Apostle Peter’s career after he left Jerusalem, for example, is for the most part a lost chapter in the history of the early Church. We believe, however, in the long-standing Christian tradition that tells us that he died at Rome under Nero.  But, by that time, many travelling missionaries had criss-crossed Roman Empire preaching the gospel with so much success that by the end of the first century Christianity was well established in the Imperial capital. As was the case elsewhere, those Jewish Christians who tried to convert their fellow Jews met with continual hostility and rejection. Matters were not helped by the Gentile Christians denouncing the Jews as stiff-necked apostates who deserved God’s punishment through the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning down of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. At this time also a critical stage was reached in the development of the Church, which made rejection of Judaism essential for Christians, and any return to Judaism as apostasy – “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food, which have not benefited those who observe them. We have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent have no right to eat.”[xii]In a very short period of time, left alone and unsupported, the Jewish Christians gradually slipped into oblivion.

Christianity continued to expand and this expansion owed much owed much to the general poltical, social, and cultural trends prevalent within the Empire. Primarily, there were the favourable material conditions afforded by Rome’s dominance of the Medterranean world, filled with a vast number of different peoples of many races and languages, connected by a marvellous system of roads and shipping. This communication and trading system greatly facilitated the work of the Christian missionaries, who were able to travel the length and breadth of the Empire with relative ease and safety. Moreover, the Romans promoted the spread of a common culture derived from Hellenism, which meant that the missionaries could preach the Gospel in Greek in almost all the large cities of the Empire and be understood. Just as important, however, was the fact that  despite  the prosperity enjoyed by the populace of the cities there was a growing hunger for more spiritual experiences at this time, and it was Christianity that made the most of the opportunity.  The Roman religions were little competition for Christianity, for the ordinary Roman citizen sought spiritual peace in some form of religious philosophy, astrology or magic, and faith in the old Gods of the Empire could not be revived. The main competition in this area for Christianity proved to be the numerous mystery religions that were spreading at this time. Their source lay in the east and they were called mysteries because their central rites were kept secret from all but initiates. They also had certain characteristics in common, such as a sublime view of the leading divinity, a deep sense of the differences between spirit and flesh, and a great need for a saviour who would rescue his devotees from their guilt and bring them to an eternal life. Christianity was different in that it assumed the existence of sin and free will and viewed redemption as the forgiveness of sin. Christians preached the need for repentance of sin with such earnestness and humility that they set themselves above the orgiastic and sex-laden rites of the mystery religions. In the eyes of the ordinary man the Christian became, therefore, a pure person who did not cling to possessions, was not selfish or self-seeking, who was honest and steadfast. But, what made Christianity truly stand out was the way in which its followers demonstrated the power of love in their own lives, causing many pagans to exclaim, “See how they love one another”[xiii] The individual was not abandoned to his own devices but ould rely on the Christian community and the power of God’s graces. Christians saw to the support of teachers and officials, of widows and orphans, of the sick and infirm and the disabled. They also dedicated themselves to prisoners and people languishing in the mines, to those hit by great calamities and to the care of poor people needing burial; they furnished work to the unemployed, took care of brethren on journeys, and saw to the need of churches in poverty or in any peril. There is indeed no doubt that the Christian Gospel led the world to a higher stage of morality. Its social and ethical dynamism exerted a powerful influence on potential converts.

The Roman authorities, however, viewed any such movement with great suspicion and moved against Christians at every possible opportunity. It is believed that in one such persecution, instigated by the Emperor Nero, both Apostles, Peter and Paul, were put to death in Rome during the year 68 A.D.  It was through this act that subsequent Bishops established their claim for the Church in Rome to rank first among many. And the Church itself began to grow despite the cruel martyrdom of Peter and Paul. The secret of its success, however, lay in the decision at Jerusalem to remove from all new members the need to abide by the Mosaic Code. If this had not been achieved then Christianity would have remained only a marginal sect within Judaism, disappearing within a few generations. St. Paul’s insistence that the Gospel of Christ had removed all differences between people ensured that the Church became a force for god that cold transform the world.

[i]   Refer Deuteronomy 16:16, NRSVCE.

[ii]   John Henry Blunt, A Key to the Knowledge of Church History (Ancient), Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org. Download Dec.2013.

 

[iii]   Acts 10:47, NRSVCE

[iv]   Kirsopp Lake D.D., Landmarks in the History of Christianity, McMillan & Co. Ld., London, 1920

[v]   Acts 22:21, NRSVCE

[vi]   David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 years of the Christian Faith,   Quercus, London. 2007

[vii]  Gal. 2:16, NRSVCE

[viii]   Gal. 2:2, ibid

[ix]    Gal. 5:1, ibid

[x]   Gen. 17:10, ibid.

[xi]   Lev. 12:3, ibid

[xii]   Hebrews 13:9-10, NRSVCE

[xiii]   “See how they love one another”; these are the words Tertullian noted (Apology [39.6]) in the Third Century, as spoken by some of the Pagans of the time regarding Christian communities.


Jesus Christ

March 25, 2014

When it comes to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ we only have the four Gospels as a source of Historical facts, and these Gospels were written between forty and seventy years after Jesus’ death. The authors of the four Gospels drew upon the stories about Jesus’ words and actions as handed down through the oral traditions of the time. These documents were not written to provide an historical or biographical account of Jesus’ life but, at the same time, there was no deliberate effort on the part of the authors to falsify or invent facts about Jesus. They were, instead, designed to be a tool that would assist in converting unbelievers to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one of God who lives within his church and will come again to judge us all. Material was taken from the experience of the Christian communities, with regard to the resurrected Christ, and without doubt included words that were put into the mouth of Jesus and a wide range of stories told that were not strictly accurate. But evangelists, nevertheless, considered that they truly expressed the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings and, perhaps, this is why so many scholars have come to make a distinction between the Jesus known to history and the Christ of faith.[i]

 Incarnation

 Jesus’ life began very ignominiously as a child of poverty, from a race despised by many in the Roman world. Moreover, this child was born in the stable of an inn situated in a town that was just another town in the conquered province of Judea. We can appreciate, therefore, that Jesus did not enter into a life of privilege, surrounded by the social connections that would guarantee him a life of material prosperity. Nonetheless, God had come to live among us in the person of Jesus Christ. He was not present in the same manner as he had for Jews of the “Old Testament”, namely  in the intangible form of the “Shekhinah”, but in a more tangible presence as a living man. In his letter to the Hebrews Saint Paul explains – “ He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” [ii]

For the early Christian Church the history of God’s presence among his chosen people had now culminated in the ‘Incarnation’ of Christ, who was the “Son of God” and the “Light of His Glory.” In the ‘Hebrew Bible’ it is said that the glory of God had been shown as heavenly person but now, according to Christian belief, God’s glory was is actually a man, like us, through whom the light of God had been brought into intimate contact with human nature. It is only as a result of Christ’s ‘Incarnation’ that all we simple mortals are now able to be recognised as living vessels of God’s presence on earth, and we can look forward to the day when ‘God’s Glory’ will be revealed in those who have been joined to Christ, and will change creation. As St Paul said – “ I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” [iii] We,  who declare ourselves, as Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the centre of all human and cosmic history and, furthermore,  the consummation of all God’s purposes in creation. We admire and understand why God chose to reveal himself among the poor, the nameless, the despised and the forgotten of this world, rather than among the rich and powerful.

“The Book of Daniel”, in the Hebrew bible, provides us with a vision of the final judgement of man. In the book Daniel describes the ‘Ancient of Days’ upon his throne, and tells us of “one like a Son of Man” arriving amid the clouds of heaven and approaching the throne upon which he is given everlasting dominion over all the nations of the earth. This and many other Old Testament predictions pointed toward Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one of God. But, it was living prophets and wise-men who interpreted all these sacred oracles, and gave witness to the claims of the new-born Saviour. In our Christian understanding of Jesus, the heavenly and the earthly are inseparable and the term, “The Son of Man”, as used in the Book of Daniel points to the humility of Christ in assuming mortal flesh, and the glory of Christ as the divine Lord of history. In more simple terms it simply comprises within itself what is the central mystery of the ‘Incarnation’.

 Messiah

 Our knowledge of Jesus’ life and ministry comes through the Gospels as recorded in the “New Testament.” And, although we might have enjoyed reading a description of Jesus’ actions and words when a child, those who wrote the gospels felt that such a record is not necessary to further illustrate his work of redemption.We know, however, that Jesus spent about thirty years on earth almost unnoticed and unknown by the historians and writers of the time. He seems to have trained under Joseph as a carpenter, working with his hands in a quiet backwater of a great Empire which only adds to his humility. He was not a well educated man of the time and this helps to solidify the divinity of his origin because of the way he conducted his short and extremely successful mission in the world. Not surprisingly, then, instead of including the circumstances of Jesus’ personal history, the gospel authors thought it better to concentrate on what he said and the miracles he carried out. But while the gospel writers sparingly cover Jesus’ personal details, they leave us in no doubt as to the perfect integrity which marked every part of Jesus’ actions.

In the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ of the New Testament we hear how Jesus first went into the wilderness and spent forty days there in prayer and fasting. It was in this wilderness that Jesus also confronted “The Tormentor”, who came to exploit his loneliness and physical weakness. But, Jesus’ faith in the Father, and his certainty in his own self, assisted him to successfully resist all of Satan’s temptations. And so it was, that after this period of self-preparation was complete, Jesus immediately set about the task of gathering together his disciples, including the twelve men who would become his Apostles. In the company of these men Jesus travelled all through Galilee and Judaea teaching all who would listen and healing those who were sick. He had submitted to baptism by John, whose claims of being a teacher sent by God were widely recognised by the ordinary people of the land. Not surprisingly, his recognition of Jesus as the promised ‘Messiah’ must have made a deep impression upon the minds of these faithful people. The miracles that Jesus performed added weight to John’s endorsement and his fame began to spread far and wide. Matthew tells us – “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”[iv]

At this time there were many itinerant preachers who travelled the lands of the Jews preaching a variety of messages purporting to come from God. Christ’s teachings, however, were different in that they combined elements that were both familiar to the ordinary people and also strange and attractive. And yet, for many people, Jesus differed little from the other rabbis of this period in Jewish history for he preached on the scriptures, recalling men and women to return to the central precepts of the law, and proclaiming God’s love for the poor, the oppressed and the forsaken. What made Jesus different was that he proved himself a master practitioner of the art of arriving at the truth through logical argument. This was especially true when he answered questions, either sincere or hostile, by asking complementary questions that caused the questioners to answer their own questions.

There were no apparent clues to this talent from his early life, for we have seen that he lived the life of a quiet tradesman in a small settlement. Even when he first came forward to assert himself as the expected ‘Messiah’ Jesus’ quiet humility and lack of extrovert manners did not overawe or dazzle his fellow countrymen. Many would gather around him to witness the miracles he performed, but there was no established programme of where Jesus would be next. He would appear suddenly from nowhere and, after teaching and curing those in need, would disappear just as quickly. Jesus, or his disciples, never publicised his appearances, or promised miracles in an effort to get a crowd. Nevertheless, when Jesus arrived in a district the news would spread quickly and thousands would hastily assemble to hear what had to say and witness any miracle he may wish to perform.

Among New Testament scholars today – “there is now growing agreement that there is both a present and a future reference in Jesus’ teaching: The reign of God already at work in his ministry was moving toward a consummation in the future.” [v] The main objective behind Christ’s mission was to proclaim the impending approach of the “Day of the Lord” and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. God, Jesus claimed, would soon intervene in this world to bring about something radically new. But, he warned, God’s intervention would be cataclysmic, and it would bring an end to all material hopes. Jesus urged all who heard him to repent and prepare themselves for this divine intervention and assured them that salvation is God’s unconditional gift to us. Christ, through the gospels, tells us that we can all gain the Kingdom of God if we forego vengeance, bear the burdens of others, forgive debts owed us, share our goods with the poor, love our enemies, and not allow ourselves to pass judgement on others. Love, then, was the main theme of Christ’s teachings and he insisted that we should love others simply as gratitude for God’s love of us.  We all know how easy it is to love friends, or people whom we believe to be our equals, but Jesus refused to be exclusive because exclusivity was at odds with the fact that God’s offer of grace to us had no boundaries. For this reason he chose to deliberately seek out those considered by society to be outcasts, and to them he often showed special signs of his favour. At the same time, moreover, Jesus urged his disciples to keep company with those who were among the most despised members of society, such as tax collectors, Samaritans and prostitutes.

The doctrine put forward by Jesus was a comprehensive and much clearer version of the theology contained within the Hebrew Bible. It may have not been new in content but in the way it was presented by Christ it came across as an interesting, original revelation. The teachings had a new and more intimate connection with the people who heard Jesus preach and it spoke to their moral and spiritual needs. This was something new for the average Jew who was used to the meagre and uninteresting discourses of the Scribes. Though considered to be learned men they were not concerned with motivating the people and give them a clearer understanding of God’s action in the world. The Scribes were much more interested in the rituals and ceremonial life of Judaism rather in the development of a personal relationship between God and the faithful. It is not surprising, therefore, that Jesus was received with dignity and respect wherever he went. He commanded the respect of the ordinary people with whom he came in contact because he spoke to them on their own level and brought them a message of hope. But, as well as preaching the good news of the kingdom to his followers, Jesus forged them into a strong bond of fellowship in which they would share meals and joyfully celebrate their new found relationship with God. They became a faith family united by their common devotion to God and leading them through his perfect example of prayerfulness was Jesus, who called them ‘the light of the world’, ‘the salt of the earth’, and ‘the city of God’.

Jesus’ teachings challenged the long held customs and traditions of the Jews. He warned them against the developing the spirit of routine and formalism that can be so characteristic of public prayer. He urged his followers to use private prayer and would often spend whole nights in prayer. Moreover, he gave his followers a distinctive prayer of their own, the Lord’s Prayer, which has been handed down to us through the centuries. But, Jesus’ originality was not brought about by the novelty of his ideas. In fact,  most of those ideas were already present in the traditions of the Jewish people, but Jesus now brought these ideas together, developing and harmonising them, and finally, with great intensity, making them real in his own life. However, the question of Jesus’ authority quickly became a major issue for the leaders of Jewish society. They became concerned because, instead of appealing to traditional forms of authority, Jesus invoked his own religious experience and called upon his followers to do likewise. He believed in the primacy of love over law, causing him to dispute sacred Jewish traditions such as the rigidity of the sabbath observances, and he often criticised the Temple authorities. As news of his words and actions spread across the land Jesus began to be considered a threat to the establishment and they were eager to see that such a threat to their authority was quickly neutralised.

We learn from the Gospels that Christ’s enemies seldom doubt that he is able to work certain miracles, such as healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk, and exorcising demons. The only thing that they doubted was that Jesus’ works are of a divine origin. His claims to be the Christ, the anointed one of God, are established for many by the divine power he exhibits in the performance of so many life-changing miracles. Many prophets and holy persons had foretold that in the days when the Messiah comes there will be many miracles seen and many people cured of their infirmities and disease. For many in Galilee and Judea these predictions had been fulfilled in the person of Jesus. He had opened the eyes of the blind and made the deaf hear. He caused the mute to speak and the lame to rise and walk. Nevertheless, the Scribes and the Pharisees, with whom Christ regularly debates their interpretation of God’s law, constantly question by what authority does he presume to teach and to proclaim God’s will. They wondered how Jesus could presume to give moral instruction or declare sins forgiven when this, after all, is God’s sole prerogative.

It is fact that Jesus’ miracles were greater in number than those recorded in the Hebrew Bible. They also exceeded those previous miracles in their variety and excellence, indicating his bountiful goodness and mercy. In restoring sight to the blind Jesus showed how he could turn us from the darkness of sin into the light of God’s truth. When he raised the dead he demonstrated God’s power to overcome the consequences of sin. Through such demonstrations of God’s power those who witnessed the miracles were prepared to listen to him and faith in his words – “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[vi]

Christ’s ability to perform miracles was astonishing and very welcome, but the liberty with which he interpreted the law of Israel was deeply frowned upon, especially by those whose task it was to maintain the law. For the Scribes and Pharisees the greatest scandal of Christ’s ministry was the rather overwhelmingly superior attitude with which he approached the various prescriptions of the ‘Mosaic Code’.  Jesus had said publicly that he had no desire to abolish the law but, by his actions, he clearly showed that he thought the spirit of the law was too often violated by excessively rigid adherence to its letter. He ceaselessly argued against adherence to laws that had no concern for justice and, yet, Jesus did not call for any radical break from the morality of the ‘Torah’ (Mosaic Law). Christ recognised the sacred law to be the authentic voice of God, but he did not shy away from making modifications where he thought it was needed, for example in his prohibition of divorce. His followers had no difficulty with what Jesus said and did because they firmly believed that the authority upon which he acted was no less than as God’s anointed, the  ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ.’.

The Messiah for whom so many Jews longed was not, however, just a religious leader. He was visualised as a national liberator in the mould of the heroic Judas Maccabeus, but even greater. Given his absolute rejection of violence, however, Jesus was not the person to fulfil such a role. He never attempted to gain power by winning the favour of the rich and influential men of Israel, nor did he try to obtain the backing of the people by pandering to their prejudices. In fact, Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple and the end of the nation. He also caused offence by communicating with society’s outcasts and in ignoring Roman government over the Jews. It is simply further evidence that Jesus did not allow himself to be influenced by the whims, superstitions or prejudices of others. But, because he had convinced so many that Israel’s promised deliverer had finally come, Jesus naturally appeared to be a major threat to the ruling powers and their ability to maintain political stability in Judaea. To the Jewish authorities, Jesus was just another messianic pretender who, like the other would-be Messiahs believed that the coming of God’s kingdom meant that a major political revolution would be needed. Not surprisingly the Jewish authorities were fearful that Jesus and his followers might provoke a brutal repression by the Romans and bring about the total ruin of the whole Jewish nation.

By preaching he doctrine of resurrection Jesus had brought upon himself the displeasure of the Sadducees. The Pharisees were angered by his insistence that they were teaching not serving God well by teaching the laws of men as doctrines of faith. Finally, Jesus incurred the wrath of those seeking freedom from Rome by insisting on non-violence and not giving leadership by condemning the Roman authorities. Not surprisingly then, the main Jewish authority of the ‘Sanhedrin’ began to conspire in the death of this troublesome preacher. His claim to divine authority was regarded as blasphemy, and his criticism of the Jewish Law alongside his predictions for the destruction of the Temple were considered to be sacrilege. But, more importantly, the peace of Jerusalem was principally the responsibility of the High Priest and the Temple guard. Ultimate power rested in the hands of the Roman governor, and any hint of popular uprising, or even popular unrest, could have catastrophic consequences for the Sanhedrin and the Jewish nation as a whole. The gravity of the situation deepened for the Jewish authorities as Jesus took his ministry from Galilee into Judea, and into Jerusalem in particular. Out of sight in the remote districts of Galilee his ‘rantings’ could be ignored somewhat, but in Jerusalem he taught openly in the courts of the Temple and attracted huge crowds around him. The ‘final straw’ for the Sanhedrin came when Jesus went so far as to drive the money-changers out of the Temple. In this one act Jesus confirmed the Sanhedrin’s fear that he was dangerously uncompromising in his principles and that he was totally convinced that he alone had the authority to act upon those principals. There were many who did not accept him because of this apparent attitude, but also because they could visualise that the son of a lowly carpenter was to be the Saviour of their nation. The Messiah they visualised would be surrounded by splendour, wealth and earthly power. The Pharisees, in particular, were aggrieved at Jesus’ accusations that they were selfish, hypocritical, and totally impious. As Jesus’ popularity among the common people grew the anger of the Pharisees deepened and their envy changed to hatred. Passover was upon them and they resolved to seize the troublemaker, charge him with blasphemy and have him condemned to death.

Christ’s final meal with his disciples was a Passover ‘seder’, during which he predicted his own imminent arrest and death. He waved away their protests that such a thing hould happen, and then gave them a foretaste of his imminent sacrifice by sharing bread and wine with them, identifying these elements as his body and blood. This sacrifice, Jesus told the disciples, would establish a new covenant between God and his creation. His actions at the ‘seder’ table, the taking of bread and wine, the giving of thanks, the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of food and drink, were all well established Jewish rituals. Jesus, however, gave the ritual an entirely new significance when he commanded them to repeat it as a memorial of his passion, and as a recognition of his continuing presence with them until he would come again.  That same night, after the meal, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with all his disciples except Judas and it was there that the Temple Guards found him. As they seized him all the disciples fled and Christ permitted the guards to lead him away. During that night Jesus was examined by the High Priest, Caiaphas, before the rest of the ‘Sanhedrin’. When Caiaphas asked Jesus directly if he was the Messiah, and the Son of the Most High, the answer was positive. At the same time Jesus faced his judges and prophesied that they would see the ‘Son of Man’ seated at the right hand of the Mighty One. By making this declaration Jesus gave Caiaphas everything he needed to push for a death sentence.

Death and Resurrection

In the morning, after his ‘trial’ in front of the ‘Sanhedrin’, a delegation of Jewish leaders took Jesus before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, and accused him of sedition against the Emperor by styling himself the ‘King of the Jews’. After some to-ing and fro-ing Pilate turned Jesus over to his soldiers, who scourged him, crowned him with thorns, spat upon him, beat him, and then forced him to bear his own cross to a hill outside Jerusalem called Golgotha (meaning ‘place of the skull’), where he was crucified. After only a few hours on the cross Christ died and those men who had sought his death were convinced that the story of Jesus of Nazareth was finished and no more would be heard of him. But death was not to be the end, it was to be just the beginning.

If we consider Christ in purely historical terms his death would appear to have brought his mission to an abrupt end and the termination of the faith movement that had gathered around him. The hopes of all those many people that had surrounded him since the stat of his ministry were apparently shattered by his death on the cross, because he whom they believed was the ‘Messiah of God’ had died the death of a criminal. Judas, the betrayer of Christ, had committed suicide and the remainder of the twelve who had followed Jesus from the beginning were now leaderless, and concerned with their own safety.  It was left to the handful of Christ’s female followers that remained to take away his body and ensure that it was given a proper burial. There had been in the recent past other Messianic sects hat had gained popularity but had similarly perished, and there was, therefore, no reason for anyone to expect that the cult of Jesus would not soon vanish as well. But Jesus was different from those who had gone before. He had, there is no doubt, fallen victim to fear and malice of those who were in authority at Jerusalem. The difference is that rather than being seized by his enemies Christ was delivered into their hands with the foreknowledge of God. An ordinary person exercises no control over his own existence, but Jesus had demonstrated that he had the power to lay down his life and overcome death to begin a new life. Within days of his death Christ’s disciples were joyously proclaiming that he was risen from his tomb and alive once again. It was an incredible claim and one which Jesus’ enemies rushed to deny. But, these same enemies were stunned by the rapidity with which Jesus’ followers recovered from the devastating loss of their leader. They now regrouped themselves and began to preach a common message, Christ’s message of salvation and his victory over death.

The Message

This message was the earliest form of the Church’s ‘evangel’, or ‘good news’. In being raised from the dead God’s Kingdom has triumphed over sin, and Christ has been established a ruler over all of time. In his resurrection he decisively conquered all those powers of darkness that formerly held the human race enslaved to sin, death and the devil. From its earliest days the Church has continued to celebrate Easter as an event of total divine victory in every sphere of reality. Through his sacrifice we believe, as Christians, that Christ had paid the price that secured the redemption of all humanity from bondage to death. Some Christians considered Christ’s sacrifice to be a price paid to God as the penalty for humanity’s sin. But, within the early Church it was looked upon a fee that would be paid to free slaves from their slaveholder. In Christ’s case the fee was paid to free us from death and Satan. From the moment of Christ’s resurrection everything that separated us from God was removed and this was the ‘God News’ brought to the world by the Apostles and their successors.

The new life that is given to us provides us with “the possibility of seemingly impossible reconciliation, the healing of wounds that normally could never be healed, and the hope of beginning anew precisely when all hope would seem to have been extinguished.”[vii] When Christ died upon the cross his enemies believed that his influence in the world had ended, but something occurred that convinced Jesus’ followers he was still alive and gave them courage. Before he returned to the Father in heaven Jesus appeared to his disciples on many occasions, enlightening them and filling them with a new power and wisdom. Non-believers cannot truly comprehend the sudden transition of Jesus’ followers from an utterly defeated and disillusioned group to one of courage and triumph. The Apostles had been, for the most part, simple and uneducated men who were now transformed into dispensers of a new spiritual philosophy, continuing Christ’s ministry to the world and spreading a new gospel of faith, hope and love. When he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection Jesus undoubtedly explained to them exactly what they were to do now that he was returning to the Father and when he felt they were ready he told them – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[viii]

In conclusion the disciples had shared a powerfully profound experience which completely transformed their understanding of Jesus’ life and death, and of the point and purpose of their own lives. By gathering these first disciples Christ inaugurated the first Christian community, or Church. It is the fellowship of this community, the love they shared, the faith they held, and the hope they gave to others tat should be the example that all our Christian communities should try to follow.

 

[i]   T. Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, Doubleday, USA. 2005

[ii]   Hebrews 1:3, New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE). 

[iii]   Romans 8:18-21, New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE). 

[iv]   Matthew 4:24-25, NRSVCE

[v]   T. Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, Doubleday, USA. 2005

[vi]   John 8:12, NRSVCE

[vii]   David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 years of the Christian Faith,   Quercus, London. 2007

[viii]  Matthew 28:19, NRSVCE


The Chosen People

March 23, 2014

At first sight the history of religions appears to be concerned with many clearly distinguished entities, and to each of these we can feel justified in giving it the title of a separate religion. However, further study reveals to the historian that each one of these “religions” has experienced a condition of constant change throughout their history. Study shows that each religion began as a combination older forms of thought which would come to an end with a disintegration into various elements of faith. The worst of these elements would disappear, while the best elements were subsequently given a new lease of life in some new religious faith. There were occasions when this movement was more marked than at other times, and the growth and spread of the various religions depended mainly upon the manner and means of change they could undertake as human society changed. In fact the process never really stopped and from beginning to end new elements were constantly absorbed and old elements dropped, ensuring that “… religion lives through the death of religions.”[i]

Today, in our increasingly violent secular world, it is particularly hard for us to believe that God, in his wisdom, created mankind in his own image and likeness, and to be in communion with Him. But, in creating us, God decided that He did not want us to be mere automatons, without feelings and without questions. He gave us a free will and an ability to make our own decisions while, at the same time, making us responsible to Him for our actions. With the fall of Adam, and the susceptibility of mankind to temptation, sinfulness spread and caused God to turn his attention to gathering a particular people to himself. They would be a people with whom God could build a close personal relationship, develop an unbreakable bond with them, and through them establish His presence on earth. “The Old Testament”, known to some as “The Hebrew Bible”, tells us, within its pages, about the sacred story of the Jewish Nation and God’s relationship to them, through which they became His “Chosen People.” The “Hebrew Bible” tells us how the relationship between God and the Jews is regularly broken and just as regularly restored; of how God punished and then pardoned His people by removing His presence and then restoring it, and of how God never abandoned them.

The birth of the Jewish Nation begins some two millennia before the birth of Jesus with the introduction of the “Patriarchs”, the first of whom was Abraham. In this story God speaks to Abraham, telling him that he is to journey into an unknown land where his descendants would become a great nation – “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation””[ii].  This was God’s promise to Abraham, His Covenant which was symbolized in the flesh of the “”Chosen” through the circumcision of all males – “ This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.[iii] 

The age of Patriarchs was to continue through the successors of Abraham until the “Chosen People of Israel” migrated into the Egyptian Empire. This was achieved under the protection of Abraham’s grandson Joseph, who had fortuitously risen to a position of great power in the court of the Egyptian Pharoah. The protection of Joseph, however, lasted only until the time of Joseph’s death, after which the people found themselves enslaved in the land of Egypt for many centuries. Finally, in answer to the prayers of His people, God brought forward a prophet and legislator called Moses who would lead them in freedom to the land that had been promised to them. It was during this journey that God revealed His name to Moses – YHWH (Yahweh), which is said to be derived from the phrase “Eyeh Asher Eyeh” (I will be as I will be[iv]) – and to Moses God gave Israel “The Law”, which is a body of religious, moral and civil ordinances designed to guide the life of His chosen people. The tablets of stone upon which God inscribed “The Law” were taken by Moses to the People and subsequently placed in a sacred gold-plated chest known as “The Ark of the Covenant”. Within this Golden Ark God established His presence on earth, known within Jewish tradition as “Shekhinah”.[v] Initially, the Ark was housed within the “Tabernacle”, or “Tent of Meeting.”, which had been prepared for it by Moses and from this time the rites of the “Tabernacle” and the Priesthood of Yahweh was established, enduring  until the end of the second temple period in 76 AD.

After the death of Moses the “Old Testament” narratives relate how Israel conquered Canaan and settled the land promised to them by God. Over the following couple of centuries the people of Israel remained a loose confederation of 12 distinct tribes that was governed by ‘Judges’. By the beginning of the 10th Century BC, however, this loose confederation was united under a system of Kingship that began with Saul and, through Saul’s successor, David, Israel was forged into a united military and cultural power within the region. To mark this growth in power, and God’s role in achieving this for His people, the “Ark of the Covenant” was brought from its resting place in Shiloh to Jerusalem. It was, though, the son and successor to David, Solomon, who built a great temple at Jerusalem to house the Ark and oversaw its transfer into the temple’s magnificent inner sanctuary, the “Holy of Holies”. Into this holy sanctuary only the High Priest was permitted to enter this sanctuary, and this only once every year at “Yom Kippur” (Day of Atonement).

The death of King Solomon saw the beginnings of the end for Jewish unity, with the Kingdom of David being eventually divided into two distinct territories, namely Israel in the north and Judah in the south. But, as is usually the case in these situations the division led to weakness, and Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC. Through this destruction of Israel much of  Judaism’s later  traditions owe much to the continued survival of Judah. These events brought in the ‘age of the prophets’, who were men called by God to proclaim justice for the poor and oppressed, to denounce idolatry in all its form, to warn of divine retribution for all wrongs, and to herald the approach of the day when God would finally bring all the world under His rule. It was a time in which, despite the best efforts of Judah, its independence would eventually come to an end with it being overrun by the Babylonians in 587-586 BC. The Babylonian conquerors destroyed the famed ‘Temple of Solomon’ striping it of all its treasures, except the “Ark of the Covenant.” As Jerusalem was sacked and pillaged the “Ark” appears to have mysteriously vanished, leaving no trace of its whereabouts, and igniting the imaginations of many writers and treasure seekers. It was a time of great turmoil for the Jewish nation as the vast majority of the people of Judah were led away as captives and slaves by the victorious Babylonians. It was as captives that they would remain in exile for a period of over seventy years. 

In 539 B.C. the Persian Empire under the leadership ‘Cyrus the Great’ conquered Babylon and, subsequently, any Jews who wished to return to their homeland were allowed to do so. Those who took advantage of repatriation immediately began to rebuild the country, reconstructing the Temple in Jerusalem around 516-515 B.C. but without the presence of the “Ark”. Then, almost two hundred years later, ‘Alexander the Great” conquered the huge Persian Empire bringing in the age of ‘Hellenistic’, or late Greek, Judaism. Under the rule of the  Ptolemies the Jews prospered until 198 BC, at which time they were brought under the rule of the Greek-Syrian Seleucid dynasty. Then in 168 BC the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes set about the task of eradicating Judaism, desecrating the temple in Jerusalem by introducing pagan sacrifices, and mercilessly suppressing all who dared resist him. It was under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, of the Hasmonean dynasty, that the Jews rose in revolt against the harsh rule of Antiochus, and forced the Seleucid regime to recognise the Judaic faith. Finally, in 164 B.C., the Temple was reconsecrated for the people and, thirty years later the Hasmoneans won independence for Judaea. It was a condition that would last until for over 100 years and the arrival of the Roman legions.

At the beginning of the Christian era the general condition of religion within the Roman Empire was one of advanced disintegration of the old faiths and rapid inclusion od new mystical cults. In almost every district one could find the remnants of old local religions and rite that retained the loyalty of the conservative side of society, but no longer aroused any interest or emotion among the majority of the people. For the most part these local religions, throughout the Empire, had been given a form of make-over by assimilating them with a fabric of popular Greek mythology. In fact, with considerable rapidity, Greek mythology, Greek philosophy, and Oriental cults were brought together in a new and highly complex religious system. A system that had lost much of its power and influence, because there was no longer any sincere belief in a system which was considered to be, in every respect, decadent. Nevertheless, the religious system still played a very valuable role in unifying and, to some extent, civilising the diverse races of the Roman Empire. For political purposes, moreover, the introduction of worship of the emperors, living or dead, into this system of was of great importance in unifying the Empire. The Imperial Authorities generally adopted the position, that, provided a man accepted the cult of Caesar and Rome, he could also be a member of any other religion. Rome was willing to encourage local religious authorities to control all local questions of religion, and indeed all local interests generally, providing that they took responsibility for the cult of Rome and of Caesar. In this way Emperor worship was introduced into the local religion, and, more importantly, the local religion was absorbed into the unified Empire system.

But, while most cults easily accepted this situation, the Jews resolutely refused to come to terms with heathen religions. The Sanhedrim of the Jews, obstinately refused the introduction of the imperial cult. They resisted, furthermore, Emperor Caligula’s effort to introduce his statue into the Temple with the same vigour they had successfully employed against Antiochus Epiphanes in the days of the Maccabees. Though again successful this episode would eventually have disastrous results. For the Jews the incident encouraged deeply held nationalist views, combined with an unreasoning hate for the government of Rome. These elements would lead to a rebellion that inevitably brought about the fall of Jerusalem and the violent destruction of Jewish national life.  From this time onward Judaism would remain a foreign and suspect element in the life of the West.

In the beginning the small sect of Christians within their midst was despised by the Jews, and was driven from the Synagogue into contact with a heathen world.  The first Christians came from within the Jewish family and they, probably against their will, broke away from Judaism and carried their message to the Gentiles. When their fellow-countrymen refused to hear what they had to say the Christians turned to the Gentiles, rapidly abandoning their Jewish practices. Henceforth, the history of Christianity could be viewed as being a series of efforts to combine various separate elements of faith with the thought and practice of the Roman world. Christianity was, originally, the worship of God as he was understood by the Jews, but combined with a sincere belief that Jesus was the ‘Messiah’ appointed by God. To this core belief were added the yearning for personal salvation and a belief that this salvation would come through sacraments instituted by Jesus, the Son of God. Christianity was then the recognition of the Jewish God as supreme and the recognition of Jesus, as the divine Lord, who had instituted saving mysteries for those who accepted him. Personal salvation, through divine means, was now available to all who were willing to accept it.

The gods of ancient Greece and Rome did not have the best of reputations and were often represented as excelling in beauty and activity, as well as strength and intelligence. They were also, however, described as being envious and gluttonous, base, lustful, and revengeful. In fact, by the time of the birth of Jesus, even the Jews had sunk into a state of degeneracy. The adherents to Judaism were now divided into sects, two of which, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, are frequently mentioned in the New Testament. The Pharisees were the leading denomination in both numbers and influencel. By adding to the written law a mass of absurd or frivolous traditions, which, as they foolishly alleged, were handed down from Moses, they completely subverted the authority of the sacred record, and changed the religion of the patriarchs and prophets into a wearisome parade of superstitious observances. The Sadducees were comparatively few, but as a large proportion of them were persons of rank and wealth, who possessed a much greater amount of influence than their mere numbers would have enabled them to command. Some scholars believe that, for the most part, the Sadducees believed only that the first five books of the Torah , “The Pentateuch” were truly accurate. There is no record of this group openly denying the claims of the other books in the Hebrew Bible, but it is known that they had no faith in the doctrine of the soul’s immortality. In fact, from the record within the New Testament books one could describe the Sadducees as a sect that was entirely disposed to self-indulgence and scepticism.

Some three hundred yars prior to the appearance of Christ the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek, allowing the educated portion of the Empire’s population the opportunity to become acquainted with the religion of those who called themselves “the chosen people.” Through the Greek and Roman Empires the Jews were scattered all over the world, erecting synagogues and spreading the word of their faith and worship. But the widespread dispersion of the Jews also brought about the first fractures in the Mosaic Code, that made them such a united people. It could no longer be expected, for example, that persons living in far distant countries could fulfil an obligation to meet in Jerusalem three times every year to celebrate the great festivals. Nevertheless, they were a people filled with an extraordinary missionary zeal and, although they scrupulously adhered to a strict ceremonial code that often brought them much vilification and contempt, they succeeded in making many converts in most of the places where they resided.

It appears that various predictions had pointed out this age as the period of the arrival of a Messiah.[vi] Gentiles, as well as Jews, appear to have been caught up in the expectation that an extraordinary person would soon appear to influence and change the world. The civil wars which had torn the Empire apart were now almost forgotten and the barbarian tribes on the edges of the empire only occasionally created uneasiness or alarm. In fact the minds the Empire’s peoples were generally unoccupied by anything of great interest. City populations were content to idle away their time in the forum, the circus, or the amphitheatre. The subjects of the Emperor Augustus probably formed more than one-third of the entire population of the known world, numbering some one hundred millions of people. Augustus’ empire included within its immense boundaries the best cultivated and the most civilised portions of our earth. Today, almost a millennium since its final demise, the remains of its populous cities, its great fortresses, its extensive aqueducts, and its stately temples, can still be pointed to as the memorials of its grandeur. Rome, the capital of the Empire, was connected with the most distant provinces by carefully constructed roads, along which the legions could march with ease to quell an internal insurrection, encounter an invading enemy. And the military resources at the command of Empire were abundantly sufficient to maintain obedience among the many peoples over whom the Emperor governed.  

In such an atmosphere the disciples of Christ took their message to the world and the consolidation of so many nations under one government greatly assisted their task for the great roads, which radiated from Rome to the distant regions of the east and of the west, facilitated communications, and eased travel from country to country without bringing suspicion and without the need for passports. The doctrines of Judaism were already losing their attraction among many gentile nations and, although they pointed the way to salvation, they needed a new interpretation. It was at this time that Christ was born into the world in very humble circumstances but filled with the light and spirit of God. His teachings brought many followers to his side and his “Good News” would be spread throughout the world, even in the face of persecution and severe suffering. Finally, with the accession of Constantine to sole sovereignty over the Roman Empire, Christianity would become the State religion and, unfortunately, repressed and persecuted the followers of other religions. The Church achieved legal rights, became a tool of secular rulers and was lavishly endowed with wealth.[vii] But, is it still the fellowship that Christ had envisaged.

 

 


[i]   Kirsopp Lake D.D., Landmarks in the History of Christianity, McMillan & Co. Ld., London, 1920.

[ii]   Gen.12:1-2 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)

[iii]   Gen.17:10-14 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)

[iv]   David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 years of the Christian Faith,   Quercus, London. 2007.

[v]   Ibid.

[vi] John Henry Blunt, A Key to the Knowledge of Church History (Ancient), Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org. Download Dec.2013.

[vii] Ibid.


A Chosen People

March 23, 2014

At first sight the history of religions appears to be concerned with many clearly distinguished entities, and to each of these we can feel justified in giving it the title of a separate religion. However, further study reveals to the historian that each one of these “religions” has experienced a condition of constant change throughout their history. Study shows that each religion began as a combination older forms of thought which would come to an end with a disintegration into various elements of faith. The worst of these elements would disappear, while the best elements were subsequently given a new lease of life in some new religious faith. There were occasions when this movement was more marked than at other times, and the growth and spread of the various religions depended mainly upon the manner and means of change they could undertake as human society changed. In fact the process never really stopped and from beginning to end new elements were constantly absorbed and old elements dropped, ensuring that “… religion lives through the death of religions.”[i]

Today, in our increasingly violent secular world, it is particularly hard for us to believe that God, in his wisdom, created mankind in his own image and likeness, and to be in communion with Him. But, in creating us, God decided that He did not want us to be mere automatons, without feelings and without questions. He gave us a free will and an ability to make our own decisions while, at the same time, making us responsible to Him for our actions. With the fall of Adam, and the susceptibility of mankind to temptation, sinfulness spread and caused God to turn his attention to gathering a particular people to himself. They would be a people with whom God could build a close personal relationship, develop an unbreakable bond with them, and through them establish His presence on earth. “The Old Testament”, known to some as “The Hebrew Bible”, tells us, within its pages, about the sacred story of the Jewish Nation and God’s relationship to them, through which they became His “Chosen People.” The “Hebrew Bible” tells us how the relationship between God and the Jews is regularly broken and just as regularly restored; of how God punished and then pardoned His people by removing His presence and then restoring it, and of how God never abandoned them.

The birth of the Jewish Nation begins some two millennia before the birth of Jesus with the introduction of the “Patriarchs”, the first of whom was Abraham. In this story God speaks to Abraham, telling him that he is to journey into an unknown land where his descendants would become a great nation – “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation””[ii].  This was God’s promise to Abraham, His Covenant which was symbolized in the flesh of the “”Chosen” through the circumcision of all males – “ This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.[iii] 

The age of Patriarchs was to continue through the successors of Abraham until the “Chosen People of Israel” migrated into the Egyptian Empire. This was achieved under the protection of Abraham’s grandson Joseph, who had fortuitously risen to a position of great power in the court of the Egyptian Pharoah. The protection of Joseph, however, lasted only until the time of Joseph’s death, after which the people found themselves enslaved in the land of Egypt for many centuries. Finally, in answer to the prayers of His people, God brought forward a prophet and legislator called Moses who would lead them in freedom to the land that had been promised to them. It was during this journey that God revealed His name to Moses – YHWH (Yahweh), which is said to be derived from the phrase “Eyeh Asher Eyeh” (I will be as I will be[iv]) – and to Moses God gave Israel “The Law”, which is a body of religious, moral and civil ordinances designed to guide the life of His chosen people. The tablets of stone upon which God inscribed “The Law” were taken by Moses to the People and subsequently placed in a sacred gold-plated chest known as “The Ark of the Covenant”. Within this Golden Ark God established His presence on earth, known within Jewish tradition as “Shekhinah”.[v] Initially, the Ark was housed within the “Tabernacle”, or “Tent of Meeting.”, which had been prepared for it by Moses and from this time the rites of the “Tabernacle” and the Priesthood of Yahweh was established, enduring  until the end of the second temple period in 76 AD.

After the death of Moses the “Old Testament” narratives relate how Israel conquered Canaan and settled the land promised to them by God. Over the following couple of centuries the people of Israel remained a loose confederation of 12 distinct tribes that was governed by ‘Judges’. By the beginning of the 10th Century BC, however, this loose confederation was united under a system of Kingship that began with Saul and, through Saul’s successor, David, Israel was forged into a united military and cultural power within the region. To mark this growth in power, and God’s role in achieving this for His people, the “Ark of the Covenant” was brought from its resting place in Shiloh to Jerusalem. It was, though, the son and successor to David, Solomon, who built a great temple at Jerusalem to house the Ark and oversaw its transfer into the temple’s magnificent inner sanctuary, the “Holy of Holies”. Into this holy sanctuary only the High Priest was permitted to enter this sanctuary, and this only once every year at “Yom Kippur” (Day of Atonement).

The death of King Solomon saw the beginnings of the end for Jewish unity, with the Kingdom of David being eventually divided into two distinct territories, namely Israel in the north and Judah in the south. But, as is usually the case in these situations the division led to weakness, and Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC. Through this destruction of Israel much of  Judaism’s later  traditions owe much to the continued survival of Judah. These events brought in the ‘age of the prophets’, who were men called by God to proclaim justice for the poor and oppressed, to denounce idolatry in all its form, to warn of divine retribution for all wrongs, and to herald the approach of the day when God would finally bring all the world under His rule. It was a time in which, despite the best efforts of Judah, its independence would eventually come to an end with it being overrun by the Babylonians in 587-586 BC. The Babylonian conquerors destroyed the famed ‘Temple of Solomon’ striping it of all its treasures, except the “Ark of the Covenant.” As Jerusalem was sacked and pillaged the “Ark” appears to have mysteriously vanished, leaving no trace of its whereabouts, and igniting the imaginations of many writers and treasure seekers. It was a time of great turmoil for the Jewish nation as the vast majority of the people of Judah were led away as captives and slaves by the victorious Babylonians. It was as captives that they would remain in exile for a period of over seventy years. 

In 539 B.C. the Persian Empire under the leadership ‘Cyrus the Great’ conquered Babylon and, subsequently, any Jews who wished to return to their homeland were allowed to do so. Those who took advantage of repatriation immediately began to rebuild the country, reconstructing the Temple in Jerusalem around 516-515 B.C. but without the presence of the “Ark”. Then, almost two hundred years later, ‘Alexander the Great” conquered the huge Persian Empire bringing in the age of ‘Hellenistic’, or late Greek, Judaism. Under the rule of the  Ptolemies the Jews prospered until 198 BC, at which time they were brought under the rule of the Greek-Syrian Seleucid dynasty. Then in 168 BC the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes set about the task of eradicating Judaism, desecrating the temple in Jerusalem by introducing pagan sacrifices, and mercilessly suppressing all who dared resist him. It was under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, of the Hasmonean dynasty, that the Jews rose in revolt against the harsh rule of Antiochus, and forced the Seleucid regime to recognise the Judaic faith. Finally, in 164 B.C., the Temple was reconsecrated for the people and, thirty years later the Hasmoneans won independence for Judaea. It was a condition that would last until for over 100 years and the arrival of the Roman legions.

At the beginning of the Christian era the general condition of religion within the Roman Empire was one of advanced disintegration of the old faiths and rapid inclusion od new mystical cults. In almost every district one could find the remnants of old local religions and rite that retained the loyalty of the conservative side of society, but no longer aroused any interest or emotion among the majority of the people. For the most part these local religions, throughout the Empire, had been given a form of make-over by assimilating them with a fabric of popular Greek mythology. In fact, with considerable rapidity, Greek mythology, Greek philosophy, and Oriental cults were brought together in a new and highly complex religious system. A system that had lost much of its power and influence, because there was no longer any sincere belief in a system which was considered to be, in every respect, decadent. Nevertheless, the religious system still played a very valuable role in unifying and, to some extent, civilising the diverse races of the Roman Empire. For political purposes, moreover, the introduction of worship of the emperors, living or dead, into this system of was of great importance in unifying the Empire. The Imperial Authorities generally adopted the position, that, provided a man accepted the cult of Caesar and Rome, he could also be a member of any other religion. Rome was willing to encourage local religious authorities to control all local questions of religion, and indeed all local interests generally, providing that they took responsibility for the cult of Rome and of Caesar. In this way Emperor worship was introduced into the local religion, and, more importantly, the local religion was absorbed into the unified Empire system.

But, while most cults easily accepted this situation, the Jews resolutely refused to come to terms with heathen religions. The Sanhedrim of the Jews, obstinately refused the introduction of the imperial cult. They resisted, furthermore, Emperor Caligula’s effort to introduce his statue into the Temple with the same vigour they had successfully employed against Antiochus Epiphanes in the days of the Maccabees. Though again successful this episode would eventually have disastrous results. For the Jews the incident encouraged deeply held nationalist views, combined with an unreasoning hate for the government of Rome. These elements would lead to a rebellion that inevitably brought about the fall of Jerusalem and the violent destruction of Jewish national life.  From this time onward Judaism would remain a foreign and suspect element in the life of the West.

In the beginning the small sect of Christians within their midst was despised by the Jews, and was driven from the Synagogue into contact with a heathen world.  The first Christians came from within the Jewish family and they, probably against their will, broke away from Judaism and carried their message to the Gentiles. When their fellow-countrymen refused to hear what they had to say the Christians turned to the Gentiles, rapidly abandoning their Jewish practices. Henceforth, the history of Christianity could be viewed as being a series of efforts to combine various separate elements of faith with the thought and practice of the Roman world. Christianity was, originally, the worship of God as he was understood by the Jews, but combined with a sincere belief that Jesus was the ‘Messiah’ appointed by God. To this core belief were added the yearning for personal salvation and a belief that this salvation would come through sacraments instituted by Jesus, the Son of God. Christianity was then the recognition of the Jewish God as supreme and the recognition of Jesus, as the divine Lord, who had instituted saving mysteries for those who accepted him. Personal salvation, through divine means, was now available to all who were willing to accept it.

The gods of ancient Greece and Rome did not have the best of reputations and were often represented as excelling in beauty and activity, as well as strength and intelligence. They were also, however, described as being envious and gluttonous, base, lustful, and revengeful. In fact, by the time of the birth of Jesus, even the Jews had sunk into a state of degeneracy. The adherents to Judaism were now divided into sects, two of which, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, are frequently mentioned in the New Testament. The Pharisees were the leading denomination in both numbers and influencel. By adding to the written law a mass of absurd or frivolous traditions, which, as they foolishly alleged, were handed down from Moses, they completely subverted the authority of the sacred record, and changed the religion of the patriarchs and prophets into a wearisome parade of superstitious observances. The Sadducees were comparatively few, but as a large proportion of them were persons of rank and wealth, who possessed a much greater amount of influence than their mere numbers would have enabled them to command. Some scholars believe that, for the most part, the Sadducees believed only that the first five books of the Torah , “The Pentateuch” were truly accurate. There is no record of this group openly denying the claims of the other books in the Hebrew Bible, but it is known that they had no faith in the doctrine of the soul’s immortality. In fact, from the record within the New Testament books one could describe the Sadducees as a sect that was entirely disposed to self-indulgence and scepticism.

Some three hundred yars prior to the appearance of Christ the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek, allowing the educated portion of the Empire’s population the opportunity to become acquainted with the religion of those who called themselves “the chosen people.” Through the Greek and Roman Empires the Jews were scattered all over the world, erecting synagogues and spreading the word of their faith and worship. But the widespread dispersion of the Jews also brought about the first fractures in the Mosaic Code, that made them such a united people. It could no longer be expected, for example, that persons living in far distant countries could fulfil an obligation to meet in Jerusalem three times every year to celebrate the great festivals. Nevertheless, they were a people filled with an extraordinary missionary zeal and, although they scrupulously adhered to a strict ceremonial code that often brought them much vilification and contempt, they succeeded in making many converts in most of the places where they resided.

It appears that various predictions had pointed out this age as the period of the arrival of a Messiah.[vi] Gentiles, as well as Jews, appear to have been caught up in the expectation that an extraordinary person would soon appear to influence and change the world. The civil wars which had torn the Empire apart were now almost forgotten and the barbarian tribes on the edges of the empire only occasionally created uneasiness or alarm. In fact the minds the Empire’s peoples were generally unoccupied by anything of great interest. City populations were content to idle away their time in the forum, the circus, or the amphitheatre. The subjects of the Emperor Augustus probably formed more than one-third of the entire population of the known world, numbering some one hundred millions of people. Augustus’ empire included within its immense boundaries the best cultivated and the most civilised portions of our earth. Today, almost a millennium since its final demise, the remains of its populous cities, its great fortresses, its extensive aqueducts, and its stately temples, can still be pointed to as the memorials of its grandeur. Rome, the capital of the Empire, was connected with the most distant provinces by carefully constructed roads, along which the legions could march with ease to quell an internal insurrection, encounter an invading enemy. And the military resources at the command of Empire were abundantly sufficient to maintain obedience among the many peoples over whom the Emperor governed.  

In such an atmosphere the disciples of Christ took their message to the world and the consolidation of so many nations under one government greatly assisted their task for the great roads, which radiated from Rome to the distant regions of the east and of the west, facilitated communications, and eased travel from country to country without bringing suspicion and without the need for passports. The doctrines of Judaism were already losing their attraction among many gentile nations and, although they pointed the way to salvation, they needed a new interpretation. It was at this time that Christ was born into the world in very humble circumstances but filled with the light and spirit of God. His teachings brought many followers to his side and his “Good News” would be spread throughout the world, even in the face of persecution and severe suffering. Finally, with the accession of Constantine to sole sovereignty over the Roman Empire, Christianity would become the State religion and, unfortunately, repressed and persecuted the followers of other religions. The Church achieved legal rights, became a tool of secular rulers and was lavishly endowed with wealth.[vii] But, is it still the fellowship that Christ had envisaged.


[i]   Kirsopp Lake D.D., Landmarks in the History of Christianity, McMillan & Co. Ld., London, 1920.

[ii]   Gen.12:1-2 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)

[iii]   Gen.17:10-14 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)

[iv]   David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 years of the Christian Faith,   Quercus, London. 2007.

[v]   Ibid.

[vi] John Henry Blunt, A Key to the Knowledge of Church History (Ancient), Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org. Download Dec.2013.

[vii] Ibid.


The Sacrament of Baptism Part 3

September 4, 2013

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

As faithful Christians we do not harbour any doubts that it was Jesus Christ himself who established the sacrament of baptism. To substantiate our claim we can relate the words of Jesus as recorded within the Gospel of St. John – “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.(John 3:5) The only real controversy that exists among Christians is centred upon when, in his period of ministry, Christ instituted the sacrament and the fact that the scriptures do not specifically reveal this information. Some writers on the subject of ecclesial history continue to publish their differing opinions on this question, based upon several probable occasions described in scripture that they have identified. Among these is Christ’s own baptism in the Jordan, or when Christ declared the necessity of re-birth to Nicodemus, or the time when he sent the Apostles and disciples out into the world to preach and baptise. Because He was the Christ, the anointed one of God, Jesus had to submit Himself to the entire law of God. It was His vocation not only to die for the sins of the world, but also to obey the “Law”, if He was to achieve the righteousness that would be passed on to the people by the Father. Every requirement that was imposed upon Israel was, therefore, also imposed upon Israel’s Messiah, and that included the command to be baptised.

 John the Baptist, the gospel of Luke suggests, was born into the priestly caste of Israel by virtue of his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, being from among a priestly line. Unfortunately, the gospels do not tell us the name of the village or town in which the family lived are anything more informative about the Baptist’s background. The noted historian Josephus, however, does inform us that there were approximately 7000 priests in Israel at this time, the vast majority of whom survived on a very small income. For many of these priests their lives were ones of impoverishment and it was not unknown for some of their number to starve to death. The Jewish faithful paid tithes to support their Priests financially, but these tithes were, for the most part, taken into the coffers of the High priests and rarely shared with those priests of a lower status and their families. Zechariah and his family were numbered among this lower stratum and within that family there must have been some grievances held by them against the status quo of the Temple priests. In Matthew’s gospel we are told about John’s public condemnation of the wealthy and powerful elite that ruled over the faithful in Jerusalem – “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matt. 23:33). John called upon them to accept baptism as a repentance and purification for their sins. At the same time, however, John was aware that the mission assigned to him by God was only just beginning. He let it be known to his followers that he was not the promised Messiah, but a herald of God’s anointed. It was this anointed one who would come to the people in the future and would baptise them, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

In the minds of the Jewish religious leaders of the time, John’s call for the Jewish people to present themselves for baptism at the Jordan River was a scandal. Baptism, as we have seen in the previous section, was used for the most part when a Gentile converted to Judaism. Having chosen to follow the doctrines of Judaism, the new convert had to be circumcised and, in addition, he had to undergo a ritual that comprised a ceremonial bath of purification known a “Proselyte Baptism”. This rite was seen to be necessary and administered to Gentile converts because they were considered to be ceremonially unclean, whereas the Jews were considered to be clean, and not required to undergo any sort of cleansing rite. Not surprisingly, then, that when John called upon the Jews to be baptised, the Pharisees felt outraged by the implication that the Jewish people were unclean and raged against John.

For the most part scholars consider that the form of baptism administered by John to be the model of what came after him, because he baptised with water. There are those, however, who consider John’s baptism was simply a baptism of penance that was undertaken for the remission of sins, and very different in its efficacy from that sacrament instituted by Christ. To these people John is simply a hermit prophet who came out of the wilderness spreading a message from God that called upon the people to – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near(Matt 3:2)

 Scripture does not tell us how long John had been preaching in the wilderness before Jesus presented himself for baptism at the Jordan River. There is, however, some evidence that suggests Jesus did not return to Galilee immediately after his baptism in the Jordan, – “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God(Mark 1:14). Perhaps, Jesus chose to stay with John after his baptism in preparation for the mission that had been given him and that we read about in John’s gospel “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized — John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison” (John 3:22-24) It appears, then, that only after Jesus had received news of John’s arrest that Jesus gave up his baptizing ministry in Judea and went to Galilee, perhaps to take John’s place among the people there (see Mark 1:14 above).At beginning of this ministry, however, because Jesus preached and baptised in exactly the same manner as John the crowds following him began to think of him as John risen from the dead – “King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.(Mark 6:14-16). Jesus, nevertheless, continued to lavish praise upon John – “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11). Later, in the same gospel, Jesus puts further praise  on John – “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:32). There is little doubt that Jesus regarded John to be a key figure in the development of his future ministry, and gives us further indication that he and John must have spent a considerable period of time together.

 John had pleaded with the people to turn away from their sinful ways, marking their conversion by purifying themselves in the River Jordan. The area of the River where John is thought to have conducted his baptism of the people has not undergone any major changes in the intervening 2000 years. At this place the river’s steep banks were, and continue to be, lined with trees that grow thickly. There are also great masses of reeds that can grow to a height of five metres or more; and dense undergrowth that can hide poisonous snakes and a variety of dangerous wild animals. The generally accepted location of John’s baptisms is a day’s walk from Jerusalem and, to be honest, does not appear to be the perfect location for such a ministry. John, nevertheless, became beloved of the people and known to them as “the Baptist”. But, John also knew that he was but the forerunner of God’s anointed and boldly declared to all his followers – “I baptise you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.(Matt. 3:11). By making this declaration John was attempting to clarify his ministry to the people, informing them that, despite what they thought, he was not the Messiah that had been promised to them. He was also attempting to explain to his followers that the baptism he conferred did not remit their sins, but was the penance that accompanied it. John’s baptism, therefore, was not a sacrament as we know it, but a preparation of the way for the baptism of Christ. The difference in these actions is subsequently seen within “The Acts of the Apostles” and St. Paul’s arrival at Ephesus. In that great city of the Empire Paul encountered several Christian converts who had received John’s baptism, but he told them that they had to receive the baptism of Christ if they were to be truly Christian – “Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”(Acts 19:4-6). Paul’s understanding of baptism was much more on a spiritual plane and, as we shall discover, it could be said to be much closer to the mystery cults of the ancient civilisations than it was to the traditional Jewish and Judaeo – Christian purification ritual.1

 It is very probable that baptism was instituted as a sacrament at that moment when Jesus commissioned the Apostles and disciples to go out into the world to preach and baptise, as is described in the Matthew’s Gospel – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit– (Matt. 28:19). There is, unfortunately, no solid evidence within the text of the gospel that can point directly to Christ as the person instituting the sacrament of Baptism. In this passage, however, the Apostles and disciples appear to immediately act upon Christ’s instructions, which may be a clue that Jesus had already personally taught his disciples the matter and form of the sacrament they were to confer on others. There are, of course, there are other students of sacramentology who adhere to the opinion expressed by several of the “Fathers of the Early Church” that the sacraments of the Church flowed from the side of Christ when he was crucified. Modern theology appears, for the most part, to oppose any such proposition and suggests that any reference to the death of Christ is more a symbol of the perfection of the sacraments rather than their institution.

It has been explained that there is no concrete evidence within the Gospels that definitively informs us at what moment in his ministry Jesus instituted the sacrament of baptism. We should, however, consider just what the Gospels do tell us about the baptism of Jesus, and the subsequent spread of baptism as a Christian ritual of major importance. In our studies, among the first things we will discover is how Jesus presented himself to John the Baptist at the River Jordan and was baptised by his cousin. We also discover that John was the herald of God, sent ahead of the promised Messiah to announce his imminent arrival and to prepare the people for the day of God’s salvation. But, from this short story in scripture we also learn that John’s baptism was simply a sign of a person’s decision to change the moral course of their life, rather than a solemn ritual that symbolised the forgiveness of sin. The gospel record does not, however, clarify any questions we may have about who baptised the Apostles. The New Testament is sadly lacking in any evidence that Jesus actually baptised any person, despite the verse from John’s Gospel telling us – “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized.” The gospels, nevertheless, do inform us that the Apostles were baptising others during the lifetime of Jesus and we can assume, therefore, that in these cases the baptisms were carried out in the style established by John the Baptist. From the one verse in the Gospel of John can we assume that Jesus personally baptised people, or was it just the Apostles who conferred baptism? Even though we are told, later, in the same Gospel – “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than Johnalthough it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized — he left Judea and started back to Galilee.(John 4:1-3), our question remains unanswered.

 Although there may not be any definitive evidence in scripture pointing to Jesus personally conferring baptism there, nevertheless, is an ancient tradition within the early Church that Christ did baptise the Apostle Peter. Peter then, subsequently, baptised the Apostles Andrew, James and John; and the other Apostles, it is claimed, were baptised by these.2But, the New Testament once again causes the student confusion once again by relating the story that it was not until after the feast of Pentecost that the Apostles and disciples of Jesus began to baptise those among the Jewish population who had accepted the “Good News” of Christ’s victory over death. This story raises the question is asked, then, if this form of baptism is substantially different from that given to the Apostles after Christ had personally baptised Peter? In the “Acts of the Apostles” we are told only – “Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’” (Acts 2:38-39). This incident from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, combined with others from the same book of the New Testament, may lead one to believe that at this stage of the Church’s development the rite of baptism was only for those adults who had expressed their faith in Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Messiah) of God. There are, however, several accounts within the New Testament concerning the baptism of an entire household, e.g. “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.”And she prevailed upon us(Acts 16:11-15); and Paul’s gaoler at Philippi – “Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,you and your household.”They spoke the word of the Lordto him and to all who were in his house.At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.” (Acts 16: 25-33). This movement by an entire household, when the head of the household had come to the faith was a common occurrence in the ancient Mediterranean world. In the various cultures that inhabited these areas it was the Father who spoke for and acted on behalf of the family, and his word was law. This also implies that the children and slaves of these households were a part of the mixed community that comprised the early Christian family.There is no specific evidence, however, that demonstrates children and/or infants were included in these baptisms. Much later, Iraneus, a much respected Doctor of the Early Church wrote – “he (Jesus) came to save all through himself; all I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore he passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age … (so that) he might be the perfect teacher in all things; perfect not only in respect to the setting forth of truth, perfect also in respect to relative age.”3

 Within the Acts of the Apostles we are given several examples of how new members came to follow Christ and his path. In the second chapter of Acts the pattern of this movement seems most clearly outlined – “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.(Acts 2:36-42). In this passage Peter proclaims Jesus as the fulfilment of all the promises of the Scriptures, and those who hear his words are deeply moved by them and are called to follow. In response to their acceptance of Christ as their saviour they are led to be baptized with water for the forgiveness of sins, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. They are now entering into a new life as a Christian that includes preaching (didache), community (koinonia), the breaking of the bread (klasis tou artou), and prayer (proseuchai).

 We are aware, from the historical record, that those who presented themselves for baptism had hands laid upon them, though it remains unclear if this happened on every occasion. Nevertheless, it reminds one of that scene from the Acts when Paul had arrived in the city of Ephesus and encountered several converts to Christianity. He asks them – “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?(Acts 19:2). When they told Paul – “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.Paul investigated further by asking them what style of baptism they had received and they confidently replied that they had been given the baptism of John. This concerned Paul and he explained to them that John’s baptism was repentance for sin only and that they now need to believe in the one who had come after John. This was the “Anointed One” and the one of whom John had spoke; Jesus. Paul now took it upon himself to baptise these converts in the name of Jesus and laid his hands upon them. We are told – “When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.(Acts 19:1-6).

 We are grateful that the scriptures tell us many things but, with regard to baptism, they offer very little explanation, or even a clear definition of the actions that are used in the rite and their actual meaning. There is no explanation, for example, that the act of immersion in water symbolises forgiveness and a cleansing of past sins. There is also no definitive explanation that the laying-on of hands after immersion signifies a passing on of the Holy Spirit, “the helper”. The one major baptismal event that is described through the Acts of the Apostles and the story of the spread of Christianity, is the complete separation of what was old from what is new. When “The Old” is spoken of it is referring to those signs and symbols of the “Old Covenant” adhered to by those who continue to await the coming of the promised Messiah. What is new is the people who have realised that the Messiah that God promised was fulfilled through the person of Jesus, and his victory over death.

Baptism, therefore, marks the end of the power of sin. The faithful are able to live a new kind of life for God in Christ, to whom they are intimately united. To the believer Baptism communicates the life-giving power of the risen Lord, and is the defining point that marks the beginning of a “New Covenant” with God that replaces the “old covenant” that was once agreed between God and Abraham. The advent of Christian baptism signalled to all that those people who had been living within the community, bowed by a daily struggle to adhere to the laws of Moses, that they could now live in a community influenced by the love of Christ and a willingness to forgive. When we Christians refer to Adam’s fall, and the stain of original sin, it is not a reference to personal fault but rather to our human inclination to be diverted from holiness and temptation to do wrong. This is the condition that we call “Original Sin” and it is the result of the fall of Adam and Eve, the loss of their gift of holiness and their closeness to God. All humankind share this loss and are, therefore, subject to suffering, death and ignorance. But Christ, through His death and resurrection, conquered the power of Satan. St. Paul tells us, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” (Romans 5:18).In the early Church, therefore, the occasion of baptism was perhaps the most significant context for the confession of the faith. This was not a matter of testifying to one’s own experience, but of making one’s own the common confession of the believing community of which one was becoming, in baptism, a member. When we move from a state of unbelief to a state of faith, we make a transition. We enter into the kingdom of God, into fellowship with God, and into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ after being outside of these things. Salvation, then, is a movement from one realm into another realm, from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

1 Gera Vermes, Christian Beginnings; From Nazareth to Nicaea AD 30 – 325, Penguin Books Ltd., London. 2013, p.90.

 2Nicephorous, Hist. Eccl, II,iii; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata Book III

 3Iraneus, Against Heresies, 2:22:4 (AD 189.

 


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